It’s fair to say New Zealand’s relationship with China feels a bit angsty at the moment.
I’m not going to talk about that too much in this column – if there’s anything good to come out of the last fortnight, it’s that we’ve seen a wide range of voices discuss the issues from multiple perspectives.
Instead, indulge me while I take you on a trip back a quarter of a century, to 1994. That was the year the Asia New Zealand Foundation came into existence.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister was Jim Bolger; his deputy was Don McKinnon, who was also the foreign affairs minister.
The internet was just a thing that a few early adopters bored their friends with, and Shortland Street was only a couple of years old.
The Straitjacket Fits’ album Blow won album of the year at the New Zealand Music Awards.
New Zealand’s population was around 3.6 million, and about 3 per cent of that population identified as Asian (today, it’s closer to 15 per cent).
Tourists and students from Asia were becoming more visible, and New Zealand was beginning to see the impact of the immigration changes of the late 1980s.
But for most New Zealanders, our Asian food influences were pretty much limited to wontons and sweet and sour pork.
On the international front, APEC was only a few years old; New Zealand was enjoying a stint on the United Nations Security Council.
And it was gradually dawning on New Zealand that the Asia region was relevant to us economically.
Asia was no longer simply a place that we gave aid to.
Our economic relationship with Japan was one of the most important; two-way trade with China amounted to about $700 million (it’s now close to $29 billion); and trade with South Korea and Southeast Asia was also growing.
New Zealand’s increasing ties with Asia weren’t wholeheartedly embraced.
1994 was just a year after the publication of “Asian Inv-Asian” articles in Auckland community newspapers. And there were lingering fears Japanese investment might threaten a “Kiwi” way of life.
It was against this backdrop that the Asia New Zealand Foundation was formed, driven by the efforts of National ministers Philip Burdon and Don McKinnon.
It was initially given the catchy, then-futuristic title of “Asia 2000”.
Last week we brought together our New Zealand Honorary Advisers. They include Sir Don McKinnon and Philip Burdon, but also 15 others with a wide range of experiences and interests in the New Zealand-Asia relationship.
At the meeting, McKinnon spoke of the drivers behind the foundation’s establishment.
New Zealand had been dominated by Europe and North America for many decades, and it was clear that picture was beginning to change.
But it was also clear New Zealand didn’t know much about Asia at all.
“We thought there was a need to go beyond government-to-government, and there had to be more people-to-people links.”
And here we are, 25 years later. You might say Asia turned out to be bigger than we had all anticipated, and that its growth exceeded all predictions.
Since then, the foundation has supported thousands of New Zealanders to build people-to-people links with Asia, and hundreds of thousands to have “Asia experiences” while still in New Zealand.
Our research shows that overall New Zealanders feel pretty good about their country’s relationship with Asian countries, even if they don’t know enough about the region.
In tricky times – such as the one we seem to be having with China right now – it’s even more important that we keep engaging with Asian countries.
We also need to recognise our relationships with these countries have many threads that go beyond trade and tourism statistics.
As just one example, over the last fortnight hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders have been enjoying Chinese New Year celebrations and Lantern Festivals across the country.
And it’s important that we recognise our relationship with Asia goes far beyond one country.
I’m always struck by the fact that online commentators on these columns will mention China, even if the column itself doesn’t mention it.
New Zealand has come a long way since 1994.
Our increased ties with Asia have enriched our lives in all sorts of ways.
At the mercantilist end, there’s the economic importance of exports, international education and tourism.
But at a more human level, we also enjoy the vibrancy that New Zealand’s increased Asian dimension brings.
I don’t think anyone would claim that we know enough about Asian countries yet. That’s why the people-to-people angle that McKinnon mentioned continues to matter so much.
Funnily enough, Shayne Carter, songwriter and vocalist for that award-winning Straitjacket Fits album, is currently in Thailand on an artist residency supported by the Asia New Zealand Foundation.
It was useful for us last week to also hear from one of our Asia Honorary Advisers, Thailand political commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak, who noted that if the last 25 years had been dynamic and exciting vis-à-vis Asia, the next 25 looked even more so.
The risk he warned New Zealand against was complacency in dealing with our Asia relationships which include, but are not solely, China.