Simon Draper: Be aware of uncertainty in Asia

Executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Simon Draper.

Executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Simon Draper.

As part of the Asia New Zealand Foundation's education programme we've been trying to produce informative maps to help Kiwi school kids learn more about the countries of Asia.

We've completed four of these so far. You might think it would be a simple enough task.

But in producing them, the team has been turning itself into knots over small dots and dashes that represent contested borders or islands. We had to abandon one map totally.

And there's no simple answer – whether to include an island or not on an individual country's map is bound to upset somebody or another.

New Zealanders find it hard to get our heads around the political sensitivities of borders.

Can you imagine New Zealand getting caught up in a dispute about the Chatham Islands or Auckland Island?

But the significance of dots and dashes on maps is very real in Asia.

Earlier this month I attended the Shangri-La Dialogue, the major defence summit for the region. Our Minister of Defence Mark Mitchell was one of the speakers, as was Dr Ng Eng Hen, Singapore's Minister of Defence and one of the Asia New Zealand Foundation's Honorary Advisers.

Global threats and regional security: the rules-based regional order; and practical measures to avoid conflict at sea were among the issues discussed at the dialogue.

Now, when I'm in Wellington, I understand conceptually that these topics are important.

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But they're far more real when you spend even a few days in the region. You can read about these issues as much as you like – but you don't feel them until you're standing in a room with players from the countries involved. They are visceral.

Of all the events I've been to recently, the Shangri-La Dialogue had the most palpable sense of anxiety about uncertainty in the region – and frankly about China's rising influence.

Many in the room were seeking reassurance from the United States that it would continue to be involved in the region. They left not totally reassured.

The nervousness stood in contrast to a forum I attended in Beijing last month on China's Belt and Road Initiative.

Twenty-eight heads of state attended. When you see Vladimir Putin from Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey standing on the same stage as friends – and you know in Syria their respective proxies are shooting at each other – you see what "convening power" really is.

The Belt and Road Initiative has been described to me as "China's moon shot". Whatever it is, it has the potential to significantly change the geopolitical landscape of the region - our region. Where is the national conversation about what this initiative means for New Zealand?

The Belt and Road Summit in Beijing and Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore are snapshots of two co-existing but different views: the excitement of opportunity – but also a nervousness about some of the changes taking place in Asia.

Why does this matter to you?

Firstly, a central maxim of business is "know your customer". If you're a New Zealand company that sells to Asia, you should be aware of the general mood in the country you're selling to.

We know all the data about Asia's growth rates and middle-class are positive – but they're also based on the relative stability and certainty of recent years. Today, the region arguably faces greater uncertainty than it has in recent times. Businesses don't like uncertainty. Neither do consumers.

Secondly, seemingly distant events do matter to us. One-third of global trade passes through the South China Sea – a body of water too contested for us to try and tackle on a school map. Stability in the region is vital for our exporters – and all the jobs that rely on exports.

I remain positive about New Zealand's prospects in Asia, but I don't think we should take anything for granted.

I have stated in the past I believe the pragmatist nature of New Zealanders means we naturally tend to be short-termist. However, some important issues require more than turning your mind to when confronted by a problem.

I hope New Zealanders will consider what uncertainty in the region could mean, and how we can navigate it.

I don't believe these are questions we should just leave other countries to think about.

Let's not wait until we are confronted by stark choices but think ahead. It would make a nice change.

Simon Draper is the executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, a non-profit organisation focussed on New Zealand-Asia relations, with a range of programmes designed to equip New Zealanders with first-hand experience of Asia and to forge links to the region.

 - Stuff


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