Patron: Her Excellency, The Right Honourable Dame Cindy Kiro, GNZM, QSO, Governor-General of New Zealand

New Zealand’s engagement with the Asia-Pacific Region in the wake of the 2020 general election

Asia Forum talk 28 October 2020 – Malcolm McKinnon

New Zealand’s engagement with the Asia-Pacific Region in the wake of the 2020 general election

Kia ora katoa.


I’d like to thank Farib and the Asia Forum, Siah Hwee Ang and SEACAPE for the invitation to speak on this topic and for the hospitable welcome.


I’d also like to acknowledge Athol Mann, whose warmth of person and sociability was matched by the sharpness of his intellect. He is sorely missed.


I am Indebted to discussions with many colleagues at VUW; with Michael Naylor and Alex Hill at UnionAid; with Graeme Acton, Suze Jessep and James To at Asia-NZ; with fellow historian-turned-IR teacher Rob Rabel. None are responsible for what follows.


From the title, ‘in the wake of the 2020 election’, it could be inferred that foreign policy, whether relations with Asia or more generally, was debated in the election. We know this was not the case (for the most part). That’s reassuring to the extent it indicates a domestic consensus, it’s not so reassuring to the extent it indicates an inward focus when the ‘outside’ world has never been more powerful in shaping events.


Labour governments in the past have grappled with such matters and yet have prided themselves on conducting both an independent and a moral foreign policy. Will the incoming government honour such claims and if so, what does that mean for its Asia-Pacific diplomacy?


Different words carry different freight. Asia one, Asia-Pacific another, Indo-Pacific another again. ‘Asia’ has disappeared from the last; this is an appropriate venue – forum – to ‘put Asia back in’. But which Asia? The focus here will be East and Southeast – ‘Pacific-facing’ – Asia, that part of the continent nearest to New Zealand and with which its connections are the most developed and complex.


In the rest of the paper I discuss New Zealand’s engagement with this Asia under three heads, interests, identity and values. The first has been by far the most important. Can it be buttressed by the other two?


1            Interests


Asia has long been the focus of New Zealand diplomacy, strategy and trade. 1989, the founding year of APEC, is a useful benchmark, a reminder that New Zealand’s engagement has been structured around initiatives in which Australia and Japan played major roles, and in which the economic power of Japan, the number one US ally in Asia, was matched by the US’s own strategic power. ‘Asia-Pacific’ embodied that as ‘Indo-Pacific’ embodies ideas of oceanic power.


But Asia-Pacific also reached out in two other directions: to ASEAN, with its mixed history of alliance and non-alignment, and to the communist states of mainland Asia.  That reaching out operated in both the economic and security spheres, generating an intricate web of institutions and arrangements, for which ‘ASEAN centrality’ provided a glue.


This ‘complex interdependence’, to use the phrase coined by Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, has been extraordinarily successful for thirty years. And while on the strategic side it is now under acute strain, on the economic side it persists.


Not just New Zealand but all other economies in the region (including Australia, New Zealand’s second largest economic partner and number one strategic partner) have strong trade ties with China. China’s success in dealing with Covid, and its economic recovery, suggest that such regional interdependence is not going to wane, however much strategic tensions counsel ‘decoupling’. The determination to sign RCEP before the end of the year is also indicative.[1]


From this interests perspective the mandate of the incoming government need differ little from that of its predecessors, including its immediate predecessor. It is to nourish New Zealand’s economic interests in the region while managing a strategic environment and pressure from allies that may cut across that objective. New Zealand is not alone in the region in facing such a dilemma.


2            Identity


Why discuss identity? The investment in the Asia-Pacific regional project has been a non-negotiable goal of every government since 1990. But as we’ve heard in this forum from Andrea Smith (and will hear again next month) public awareness of the regional architecture is low.


But it goes beyond that. Despite the estimable work of the Asia NZ Foundation, despite the significant Asian-origin population, even the most cursory glance at the media, at popular culture demonstrates that to the extent that New Zealanders are outward-looking their gazes range over Asia rather than into it, whilst identity diversity within New Zealand has many different facets, of which Asian-ness is only one.


The density of ties of mainstream New Zealand with the wider Anglophone world; the public service focus on inclusiveness directed at Maori and Pasifika populations first and foremost; even the post 15 March care for Muslim New Zealanders. None enhance a sense of common identity with Pacific Asia.


Moreover, revelations about CCP influence in New Zealand, and the early ‘China’ phase of Covid demonstrated how near to the surface were prejudices towards Chinese and Chinese New Zealanders; and ‘Chinese’ and ‘Asian’ are interchangeable in colloquial Kiwi speech. Paradoxically, even the Hong Kong troubles may have reinforced a sense of otherness, given the way they were framed in freedom vs tyranny terms. For one Hong Kong writer, Kong Tsung-kan, ‘Hong Kong is the litmus test, the West Berlin of the 21st century.’[2] Students in my and Rob’s 200-level International Relations class this trimester who did an assignment on the Hong Kong crisis overwhelmingly took this stance.


But there are also structural reasons for the lack of shared identity. Here’s one telling statistic: a 2015 survey of New Zealand journalists found just two percent Asian (8/504). No less than 86% were European/Pakeha.[3] I suspect surveys of boards of directors, top law firms and the public service would find something similar – a disconnect between the proportion of people of Asian origin in the New Zealand population and their representation in apex organizations and institutions. A newly-elected Beijing-born MP Naisi Chen has commented that she has had ‘lots and lots of congratulations, particularly from the Chinese community … but [that] there’s also a tinge of sadness among Chinese people, as we account for around 5% of the population, but we now only have one person who speaks Chinese in the parliament.’[4]

The pandemic, with the knowledge that New Zealand was paired with East Asian states rather than Europe or North America in its responses is perhaps a first time when a sense of commonality crossed familiar cultural boundaries.[5] Whether it persists remains to be seen.

If the foreign policy goal of regional engagement is important, then surely the identity gap, be it cultural or structural, merits discussion and analysis. I don’t want to dwell further on it, partly because I don’t think it’s something that lends itself to action by a governments with a three-year term, partly because it is unclear what the path forward should be and that could include asking the hard question ‘does it matter?’  Some areas of government are policy-driven, elite driven and may not lend themselves to ‘domestication’. Asia-Pacific engagement may be one of them. But it is also because I want now to discuss values, which will allow me to pick up some of the points made here.


3            Values


That the engagement with the region is overwhelmingly interest-driven and not embedded in a notion of shared values is well understood. When Chris Hipkins addressed the New Zealand Asian Studies Association last December his commentary almost entirely defined New Zealand’s ties with the region in terms of interests. This is not surprising – and no one was surprised – for several reasons.


First, at no point in the last thirty years have regional governments encouraged a debate about values of a kind that New Zealand would have welcomed or signed up to. Again, this audience doesn’t need a lesson on why. The much discussed ‘authoritarian turn’ has reinforced this but it does not stem from that.


Second, to the extent that there has been debate about values in New Zealand foreign policy it has been framed globally rather than regionally. The current Prime Minister has a high profile globally, but it is more marked in Europe and North America than in Asia. The essays in the recent excellent publication, Beyond These Shores, Aotearoa and the world, re-imagining our role in the world (BWB 2020) edited by Nina Hall, take a mostly global focus on the values which should inform New Zealand foreign policy, though the book does include a stimulating essay on rethinking the New Zealand-China relationship by Zheng Dazheng.

The absence of such discussion in dealings with many Asian governments is telling. The last ASEAN-New Zealand dialogue meeting was uber-bland, welcoming as it did  ‘the drafting of a new five-year Plan of Action next year to focus on strengthening the partnership through focused areas of cooperation such as, trade through the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA), food and agriculture, renewable energy, and governance and public sector leadership. . .’[6]  Tellingly perhaps, the ASEAN co-chair was the Permanent Representative of Cambodia to Yeap Samnang, the representative of one of the least democratic governments in Southeast Asia.[7]

Developments in the last twelve months have not made a ‘values proposition’ with Asia any easier.  The ideological framing of the China-US rivalry, especially marked over Hong Kong, has made it harder twice over. It has created a US vs China, or West vs China binary which has put the rest of Asia in the shadow. And the ‘either for or against’ rhetoric puts nuance and qualification at a discount, reminiscent of the iciest phases of the Cold War, when social democrats struggled to be critical of the Western stance without being ‘soft on the Soviets’.


New Zealand has spoken up on the Rohingya, on Hong Kong, and on the Uyghurs but it’s been in concert with Western rather than Asian states, with the exception of Japan.[8] That is no reason for giving up on the endeavour of finding common values, but how to do it in ways which speak with rather than at Asia?


And which values? I’m indebted for my thinking on this to Rob Ayson’s inaugural professorial lecture, from 2011, titled ‘Interests, Values and New Zealand’s Engagement with Asia’. Rob identified eight values – accommodation, respectfulness, peacefulness, lawfulness, generosity, responsibility, sustainability and restraint. Rob is an IR scholar, and I’m an historian – I support all those values but in this paper I explore others which anchor the values debate in Asian history.


Asia is home to three modern political lineages, those of anti-colonial nationalism, communist revolution and democracy. All are varieties of nation-building and it is through that lens that I’ll explore commonality of values between New Zealand and Asia. Asia is also home to a fourth variant with which Asian governments often have fraught relationships – minority nationalism.


Anti-colonial nationalism


Anti-colonial nationalism places a premium on national independence. The attainment of national independence is central to many Asian nationalisms. Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia all commemorate days in August and September 1945 – the defeat of the Japanese and the determination that colonial rulers should not return. China, never formally a colony, has a divided acknowledgement, the overthrow of the empire and the inauguration of a republic in 1911/12 and the inauguration of a people’s republic nearly 38 years later.  Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, the Philippines – all have analogous dates. Such anti-colonial nationalism has also been central to intra-Asian collaboration. In his 2015 lecture ‘Asia 70 years since World War II’ Kippenberger Fellow Thitinan Pongsudhirak reminded us of the importance to newly-emancipated Asia of the Asian Relations Conference 1947 and the Bandung Conference 1955.


Does New Zealand share this historical experience?  Yes and no.  On the one hand ‘independence’ has been a by-word in New Zealand foreign policy since at least the 1980s and undoubtedly will remain so for. On the other hand, New Zealand remains a state for the most part of colonisers not the colonised. In June 2020 Foreign Affairs submitted a memorandum to the Cabinet on the impact of Covid on New Zealand’s international circumstances. The memorandum described the pandemic as an ‘epochal shock’ which sat alongside  ‘the likes of the Great Depression, the fall of Singapore, the UK entering the European Economic Community and the oil shocks of the 1970s in terms of its significance as a geostrategic event that will profoundly impact New Zealand’s national interests.[9] Is it telling that the colonisation of New Zealand was not identified as a geostrategic event . . . or was it just oversight?  Today – 28 October – is the 185th anniversary of He Whakaputanga, the Declaration of Independence of New Zealand, the forerunner of the Treaty of Waitangi.[10] It could be a starting point for a deeper New Zealand appreciation of the importance of national independence in Asia.


Communism, socialism and the nation


Communist states sought to emancipate peoples through revolutionary transformation.  To that end Communists pursued literacy, public health and food security. Freedom of expression and opinion were ranked lower.


The Cold War debate between the West and the Communist bloc over implementing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is relevant here. In the event two covenants, not a single covenant, were agreed to, in 1966: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (IESCR).  At the heart of the debate was the question, which were the more important human rights – the right to be ‘free’ or the right not to starve?


The either/or may be a rhetorical construct but It’s not hard to work out who was on which side. Two of the officially Communist states in Asia, China and Vietnam, continue to place great emphasis on the latter – and have accomplishments to show for it – and much less on the former.  Revealingly, while China has ratified the ICESCR it has signed but not yet ratified the ICCPR.


Vietnam, like New Zealand, has ratified both. Debates in New Zealand about child poverty, Maori and Pasifika deprivation, the cost of housing, show that this country values economic and social rights alongside procedural rights and freedoms. That’s a point of commonality with China, with Vietnam and with other Asian countries which have heavily invested in the social and economic well-being of their citizens, including Singapore and Taiwan.


Democracy, dissent and nationalism


Democracy cherishes the right to oppose – politically, peacefully and within the law. These rights are set out in the ICCPR, especially articles 18, 19, 21 and 22. A majority of East and Southeast Asian states have signed the ICCPR. Just as anti-colonial nationalism and Communism, while informed by ideas originating in Europe, are embedded in Asia, so too are democratic politics.


Democratic transitions have shaped recent Asian history: Thailand in the 1970s; the Philippines after 1986; South Korea in the late 1980s and early 1990s; Taiwan in the late 1990s; Indonesia in 1998; Myanmar (partially) in 2015 and Hong Kong (abortively) in 2019-20.


Despite the recent ‘authoritarian turn’, despite the rhetoric of some leaders, there is nothing ‘un-Asian’ about political opposition. indeed, regional movements learn from each other. The newly organized Forces of Renewal, Southeast Asia (FORSEA) held a successful conference in KL in February 2019.[11] Rohanna Kuddus has written about the youth-led ‘reformasi dikorupsi’ in Indonesia.[12] Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong commented in a recent interview that ‘the most suitable reference [point for Hong Kong was] the democracy movement in South Korea and the ‘white terror’ in Taiwan.’[13] The ‘milk tea’ alliance linking activists in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand in recent months is also indicative.


New Zealand could do worse than stress the ‘Asian-ness’ of democracy and dissent; and there’s no reason to think that any country is ‘immune’. Jiwei Ci’s China’s democracy: the coming crisis (Harvard University Press, 2020) has been praised by one reviewer for its ‘commendable debunking of a cottage industry of “political orientalism” falsely portraying China as essentially an authoritarian ‘other’ immune to the universal appeal of republican democracy.’ [14]


Minority nationalities


The 1992 UN ‘Declaration on the rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities’ accorded more attention to ethnic minorities than any preceding human rights instruments.  But it is a declaration, no more (as the Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples of 2007). The implementers, as in all UN instruments, are member states, and there are plenty of escape clauses.[15]


New Zealand values minority rights, and without doubt this is the trickiest areas for New Zealand to find common ground with Asian governments, even those which are democratic or quasi-democratic.


Many Asian governments (but not only Asian governments) have poor records in this sphere, as attested by the fate not just of Uyghurs, but of Tibetans, Rohingya and other Myanmar minorities, Kashmiris, Sri Lankan Tamils, Papuans, and Pattani Muslims. Democracy or quasi-democracy does not always ease tensions, as the record of the current Indian government in Kashmir, of the NLD government across Myanmar, and Indonesian governments in Papua, make clear.


Crown-Maori relations in Aotearoa suggest a different pathway but the substantive parallels are few. One acute dilemma is that while the nation-state is central to the international system, the age of ‘national independence’ has passed; the UN has admitted just four members since the year 2000, one of which was Switzerland. De facto states such as Kosovo, Palestine. Somaliland and of course Taiwan, are in limbo; as are the Kurds, the Uyghurs, the Tibetans.


That said, some governments have made head way – the Philippines in Mindanao; Indonesia in Aceh. Exploring what made these settlements possible can be instructive. The pathway lies through, not around, governments and indeed through, not around, public opinion in a nation as a whole. For its part, to the extent that New Zealand accepts, as do Asian governments, the primacy of the nation-state in the international system, it can put effort into where most can be accomplished – on ‘internal’ rather than ‘external’ self-determination.



4            Ways forward


Against the backdrop of this analysis, is it possible to inject a values component into New Zealand’s engagement with Asia without jeopardising its interests and without simply being another voice preaching from the pulpit – only to be ignored?

I’m going to bypass East Asia and focus on Southeast Asia, while leaving it to be inferred that some of what is discussed could be done in conjunction with Japan, South Korea and Australia. Here are three suggestions.


First, greater New Zealand participation in and with ASEAN. This may be an unattainable goal, or even an inapt one, but thinking about it would foster useful discussion.


Graeme Dobell wrote on Australia as an ASEAN community partner shortly before the March 2018 Australia-ASEAN summit. I agree with Dobell, to paraphrase, i.e. substitute one country name for another, that ‘if the ASEAN Community project is a success—in its social, political and strategic dimensions—New Zealand will want to be deeply involved in that vibrant community. Equally, New Zealand’s interests would be deeply compromised if ASEAN stalls or fails.’ [16] I would inflect that to stress shared values. But the general idea holds good.


Dobell reported a Twitter straw poll produced majorities for the idea in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines but a ‘No’ in both Indonesia – and Australia!


We don’t know who was polled but amongst the yes votes would undoubtedly be individuals from political, environmental, women’s, LGBTQ and indigenous rights groups. All would expect their causes to be strengthened by NZ and Australian membership. That of course would make ASEAN governments more sceptical – but that’s where a clear commitment to other values such as national independence and economic and social rights could assist.


Second, support for a regional human rights court. Asia stands out for the lack of such a court. Africa, the Americas, Europe all have them.  They are flawed institutions, but their continents are the better for them. Asia is too big a nut to crack but Southeast Asia with the Pacific – maybe not. Again, it’s not a matter of saying ‘the goal is an ACHR by date xx’ but putting the idea out there so it becomes part of the regional discourse. Nudging not pushing. Asian states have signed up to global human rights instruments, ASEAN has an Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights – the cupboard is not completely bare.


Third, and addressing identity more than values, joining the biennial ASEAN Games. What little I’ve read about the Games suggests they have a fair few problems. But it would be a way of turning the New Zealand media’s attention to the region as nothing else, especially if complemented with a regional media centre (probably located in Singapore).


Below the radar, as it were, it is a matter of building on what’s already happening. I was fortunate to be part of study tours to the region under the auspices of Victoria International whilst SEACAPE has developed an impressive variety of initiatives since, even if they have been on hold because of Covid. The MFAT-supported civil society and governance engagement run by UnionAid is another impressive model. Track two discussions with Mekong River partners in March 2018 canvassed increased scholarly contacts; the ASEAN @50 fellowships were one such which could be replicated.


That there are hurdles to even low profile initiatives goes without saying. The viability of ASEAN as presently constituted is one. But that’s no reason not to reflect, analyse and act.


And it’s all a way of thinking independently about New Zealand’s engagement with Asia, and not being thrown off course by China-United States rivalries.




Malcolm McKinnon




Other references


Ivan Fraceschini and Nicholas Loubere, ‘What about whatboutism? Viral loads and hyperactive immune responses in the China debate’, Made in China, 7 Jul 2020,


Anatol Lieven, ‘Stay Calm about China’, Foreign Policy, 26 Aug 2020,


David Moser, ‘A fearful asymmetry: Covid 19 and America’s information deficit with China’. Asia-Pacific Journal, 15 Jul 2020,


Flair Donglai Shi,  ‘Sinophobia will never be the same after Covid-19’, Made in China, 19 Oct 2020



[2]             Kong Tsung-kan, ‘The Edict’, Mekong Review Aug-Oct 2020, p 4; see also Mandy Te, ‘Posters confront anti-Chinese racism’, Dominion Post 31 Oct 2020,
[3]     . . . source is James Hollings et al, ‘Causes for concern: the state of NZ journalism in 2015’
[4]             Justin Latif, The Spinoff, NB two Sinophone MPs stood down at the end of the 2017-20 Parliamentary term.
[5]         Suzannah Jessep, Asia NZ,
[6]   , 8 Jul 2019.
[7]             See also Max Harris, ‘New solidarities; old alliances’ in Nina Hall, ed. Beyond These Shores, p 69.
[8]   ; Shannon Tiezi, Myanmar, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Philippines all endorsed the HK National Security Law, other ASEAN states did not take a stance; Catherine Putz,; Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Kiribati supported the statement endorsing China’s Xinjiang policies, no other ASEAN state did.
[10]            v
[12]            Rohanna Kuddus, ‘September surprise’, New Left Review 120 (Nov-Dec 2019)
[13]            Mekong Review, Oct-Dec 2020
[14]            Richard Heydarian, Mekong Review 5/3 (May-Jul 2020)
[15]            Kristin Henrard,  Minorities and international law, paras 11, 46, 50-52, 58-61,, adopted by Gen Ass of UN, 18 Dec 1992; ‘Minority rights: international standards and guidance for implementation’