Asia back on the foreign policy agenda

First, note an under-reported visit by China’s No 2, Li Chang-chun, two weekends ago. Next, note Helen Clark’s visit to Korea last weekend. Then prepare for a conference in November on relations with Asia, to be launched later this month. New Zealand’s Asia policy is being revitalised.

Li’s visit was not, senior sources say, a momentary drop-in in transit, though it was on the way home from Cuba and Argentina. He requested to visit, brought five ministers with him in his 747 and stayed three days.

Li is one of the world’s most powerful men, a leading contender for the recently decided premiership. That he spent three days, among other things a day at Auckland University and a visit to Rotorua, excited foreign affairs mandarins, even though they played it down in advance.

The university visit was in part to check the quality of an institution to which large numbers of Chinese come to study. New Zealand is an officially approved destination for such students.

There is also a concern, evident from Chinese diplomats and visitors last year, about the quality of some providers of tertiary and English-language tuition. Li apparently expressed some concern, too, about the numbers of young unsupervised students at secondary schools and some language institutions.

But underlying his visit was apparently also an interest in New Zealand as a small but experienced player in international affairs in a time of uncertainty, not least in China’s backyard, the Korean peninsula — and, now, Hong Kong.

Hong Kong highlights China’s achilles heel: a poor human rights record and a rising middle class which will increasingly demand political freedoms. The Hong Kong people’s massive demonstration in July against the proposed curtailment of freedom of expression raises questions about how long the rapidly enriching mainland cities will accept one-party rule and has raised hackles in Taiwan, next on China’s absorption list.

Will the leadership concede more freedom? Or will it try to crush it in accordance with longstanding Communist party instincts? How China responds could have important economic and strategic consequences.

Its stance on Taiwan has already had some consequences for this country. No Security Council resolution was sought to back the Australian-New Zealand intervention in the Solomons. China would likely have vetoed it because the Solomons recognise Taiwan.

There are other uncertainties. North Korea’s nuclear assertiveness, coupled with the “war on terror”, has kicked along a developing remilitarisation of Japan. Large muslim populations might destabilise south-east Asia. Australia is recasting its foreign policy to counter what it sees as serious terrorist threats.

This is not an “incredibly benign” environment, in Clark’s infelicitous phrase of 2000.

All of this formed a backdrop to Clark’s Korean visit to Korea — to commemorate the armistice of 1953 and underline earlier strong diplomatic messages to North Korea to end its nuclear weapons programme, but also to touch base with the new South Korean presidential regime.

Clark was, in addition, underlining the fact that Asia remains important to this country. That is useful, given her focus on Europe’s expansion, free trade with the United States and, since the twin towers terrorism of September 11 2001, on the Middle East.

Clark is a Europhile. She fits comfortably into the Progressive Governance group of mainly North Atlantic and European leaders, where she was again mid-July. Her principal foreign language is Spanish, her lodestar in early political life Scandinavia. She is no “Asian leader”, as Jim Bolger once improbably declared himself.

Yet North Asia alone accounts for a quarter of our trade and a fifth of our tourists, three-quarters our educational exports and a significant proportion of immigrants. Japan may have been becalmed over the past 10 years but China hasn’t and nor has the rest of east Asia. And India is now coming up fast.

A free trade agreement with the United States would be nice but would surely be accompanied by a long phase-in for dairy products — and, some argue, dairy has better long-term prospects among Asia’s rapidly expanding middle classes.

So, at least, Clark thinks. She shares the concern of some in business that “New Zealand Inc might appear to have taken its eye off the ball in Asia”. She now wants to rebalance the focus.

This goes back to November when she told the Business Apec Coalition that she wanted more focus on Asian relationships this year. She asked the Asia 2000 Foundation “to bring together government and business next year, to encourage us all to take a fresh look at our relationships with the nations of Asia and the important challenges and opportunities they offer New Zealand”.

In late August Asia 2000 will launch an initiative to do just that, leading up to a conference in November, a substantial re-evaluation of the relationship with Asia economically, culturally and strategically and proposing practical next steps.

Asia is back on the agenda.