Is the cabinet readying us for an Asian future?

Tim Groser is fond of this statistic: that the increase in exports to China in 2009 was the same as that year’s total exports to Korea. That analogy says much about east Asia’s growing indispensability to our Polynesian and British outlier nation.

First, it underlines China’s rise in the global economy and critical importance to this economy. Second, Groser’s choice of Korea instead of Britain or Canada as a comparison attests to the Asianisation of our future.

China is now No 2 export destination. We have things China needs and wants and can afford. When we go hunting for the huge capital Gerry Brownlee needs to realise his dream of oil, coal and mineral riches, where will that capital come from? Increasingly, as Australia can tell us, from China.

Managing the relationship with China — or, rather, managing China’s management of us — is now the top foreign policy challenge. Fonterra learnt one aspect of that the hard way.

That will necessitate assiduous development of relationships with Korea and Japan in north Asia, south-east Asia’s main players and India.

And, because real relationships are not those between heads of government, ministers and diplomats but those between people, it will also require the re-education of our education system.

Research last year found only 2077 secondary school students were learning Chinese language and fewer than 50 schools were teaching it.

If this smug little outpost was an island at the bottom of the Malayan peninsula, strategic thinking would have been done 20 years ago, teachers would have been imported and locals dispatched to learning institutions in Asia and schools, universities and polytechnics would have been mandated, badgered and incentivised to learn and teach Asia.

Students would have been encouraged, nudged and lured with grants and fee cuts to get to know Asia and Asians. There would have been a crash programme to teach Mandarin, Korean, Japanese and Hindi at secondary and tertiary levels and another to intensify study of Asian history, art and culture, backed with a well-funded research programme.

There would by now be a cadre of smart, young people bridging the cultural and language gulf and making us comfortable with China, India and the rest, as we are with Britain and Polynesia.

But this is not Singapore. John Key worked there for a bit and admires its strategic thinking capacity. But he runs a loose democracy here.

Jim Bolger’s government, in a fit of foresight in 1994, set up the public-private Asia New Zealand Foundation to foster Asia links with scholarships, seminars, internships, educational support, special events and exchanges, “track 2” unofficial diplomacy and research. Bolger’s former trade minister, Philip Burdon, now chairs it. Groser was chief executive 2000-02.

It is, as you would expect, under-resourced, just a bit on the side. Helen Clark’s government was Europhile from the top down. The present government has an Asian in the cabinet but is tight with money.

Last November the foundation set up a “business education partnership” with some major companies, declaring that “building our knowledge of Asia, its cultures, its languages and its peoples is a priority task for our education system” because “understanding what is happening in Asia is the key to our future”. Burdon said “we have long way to go if we are to create a society at ease with the dynamics of this region” and the chief executive, former Ambassador to Singapore Dick Grant, called all that “urgent”.

Does the cabinet think so? Anne Tolley — in the news this past week announcing output-enhancing staff cuts in her ministry — launched the partnership, along with a new curriculum guide to schools, with the homily that “it is vital that schools are ‘Asia-aware’ when designing their curriculum”.

But she offered only “opportunities” to learn, not an all-out drive. Choice is king.

Tomorrow the foundation will publish a report on the choices school heads of departments have been making about teaching Asia. Perhaps because our school workforce is ageing, teachers don’t click into an Asianised future.

Only one-fifth (21 per cent) of programmes included Asia-specific topics or projects lasting more than one period of study in the past two years. Only one-third included Asian themes or contexts of any duration and only one quarter said they included them more than once a year.

Even in geography and history 33 per cent and 41 per cent respectively did not include Asian topics lasting several periods of study. Half the heads of departments surveyed said teaching anything about Asia was “optional” in their schools. Only 36 per cent of all programmes included even “incidental” references to Asia.

Their excuses: lack of access to professional development, student choice and lack of resources.

We aren’t Singapore. Strategic policymaking is not an endemic skill. So we are shuffling into Asia. Don’t be surprised if down the track there are some discomforting surprises.