Understanding Asia-Pacific

“The Asian century” is well underway. Two Victoria academics discuss the issues and opportunities for New Zealand in the Asia–Pacific region.

Professor Robert Ayson

Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations

I think the whole world needs to be thinking about the Asia–Pacific region because global power is heading increasingly in Asia’s direction. As if that reason enough, the world’s most important bilateral relationship—between an unevenly rising China and an already strong but somewhat changeable United States—is playing out in Asia.

Understanding these power dynamics is particularly important for New Zealand, since our prosperity is increasingly connected to major markets in the region, especially in East Asia. Similarly, our closest neighbours and partners are also heavily reliant on Asia’s prosperity, which raises the stakes for us even higher.

But understanding the Asia–Pacific region is about more than economics. All of us, whether we like it or not, or whether we know it or not, rely on Asia being peaceful as well as prosperous. Growing security competition in Asia, including in the East China Sea between China and Japan and in the South China Sea between China and the United States, and the possibility of a contest between the region’s maritime democracies (including the United States, India, Japan and Australia) and its continental autocracies (including China, Russia and North Korea) are all things we need to watch.

There’s a view that since we’re all so tightly connected economically, the costs of allowing these security tensions to get the better of us are too high for conflict to occur. But this is wishful thinking.

Economic cooperation may increase the costs of conflict, but it does not deal with all of the risks of conflict. This matters a lot to New Zealand, whose policy settings have tended to focus on regional economic integration, including through the negotiation of free trade agreements. Since I came to Victoria University in early 2010, I have noticed an increasing awareness around town that the good old days of a trade-focused foreign policy towards Asia takes us only so far.

There is already some work being done on these economic-security connections in the Asia–Pacific. But there is a big gap in knowledge on how emerging patterns of security cooperation and competition are placing pressure on emerging patterns of economic cooperation and competition, and vice versa. I know there are New Zealand officials who are very interested in what this means for the Government’s future policy options. So this is a great opportunity to produce new knowledge that is of intrinsic academic importance and is also policy-relevant.

I think it is fair to say that Victoria boasts the most impressive concentration of academics in New Zealand who are able to think about the various strands of this country’s Asia–Pacific regional engagement, including political scientists, economists, lawyers, geographers and language experts. And I think our work is of real interest to scholars from around the region and to the official community too. We all need a richer public debate about these issues, and Victoria can make a real difference here.

Dr Kate McMillan

Senior lecturer

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations

To better understand the Asia–Pacific region is to better understand ourselves as New Zealanders.

Combined, the proportion of the New Zealand population who identified with at least one Asian or Pacific ethnicity in 2013 was 19 percent—a percentage likely to increase significantly over the coming decades. The proportion of those who identified with an Asian ethnicity increased by 33 percent between 2006 and 2013, and by 11 percent for those who identified with a Pacific ethnicity over the same period. Never has it been more important for New Zealanders to understand and appreciate the perspectives, histories, languages and cultures of Asia and the Pacific, alongside those of Māori and the dominant Anglo population.

There’s a clear case to be made for research about the drivers and consequences of migration from Asia and the Pacific to New Zealand. Permanent and temporary migrants, students, tourists and business visitors from the region make an enormous contribution to our economic development. Education is one of New Zealand’s biggest export earners, with China and India our largest source of foreign fee-paying students. Migrants, students and business visitors bring linguistic and cultural knowledge, as well as personal networks, all of which can be valuable in increasing  New Zealand’s connectedness in the region.

I agree with Robert, though, when he says the economic potential of Asia is only part of the picture. Migration from, and within the region, is also likely to have increasingly significant political impacts, including on our electoral politics; something my own research focuses on. We need to pay particular attention to the growing nexus between human security and migration in the region. Conflict, persecution, extreme poverty and the emerging effects of climate change all undermine human security and have the potential to cause forced or irregular forms of migration.

Asia already experiences high levels of irregular migration, including refugee flows, with many migrants vulnerable to trafficking and human rights abuses. Refugee camps are notoriously insecure places, but repatriation is an option only when there is security at home, and resettlement is only an option if third countries are willing to take refugees.

We urgently need to develop better ways of dealing with these issues. We need to ensure that the increasingly dominant discourse of ‘migrants as threat’ doesn’t obscure how insecurity itself generates forced migration. The xenophobic politics associated with a migrants as threat discourse compounds the insecurity already experienced by many migrants and minorities, and appears to be leading to a rise in nationalism in Europe.

So, while there are undoubtedly enormous economic opportunities in the Asia–Pacific, these are tightly bound up with environmental, social and political challenges. Understanding the people and politics of the region is crucial if we are to have any chance of developing sustainable solutions to these issues. Victoria’s concentration of Asia–Pacific experts, and the extensive links they have with the policy community, means we’re well positioned to contribute to this process.