Broadening (or not) the links with China

John Key is off the South Korea, China and Vietnam. A couple of days in each place, with business and research interests in tow, including a day at the Shanghai expo where half a million people go each day. It highlights east Asia’s importance. But has he grasped the breadth of that importance?

We have a free trade agreement with China and China seems to pay us attention beyond what a micro-country can expect — more than does the United States. In Beijing Key will sign a framework agreement on science which Sir Peter Gluckman expects to facilitate cooperation between research teams in the two countries on a number of specific projects. Science, Sir Peter argues, is becoming both part of and an object of diplomacy. Science is transnational.

To free trade with China we might add free trade with Vietnam if anti-free-trade lobbies in the United States don’t block expanding the P4 free trade group (Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore) to include Australia, Peru, the United States and Vietnam.

And Key aims to de-ice the frozen talks with South Korea on a free trade pact when he meets President Lee Myung-bak.

Problem 1: while Korea has declared itself a developed economy, a member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and an aid donor, it says that in agriculture, which is characterised by very small landholdings and ageing, militantly protectionist farmers, it is still a developing country. Korea has suggested assistance to farmers as part of any agreement.

Problem 2: does Korea actually want an agreement? New Zealand is already very open to Korean goods. Korea gets its kiwifruit from Chile, which does have an agreement. Why bother with New Zealand?

Problem 3: if the president undertakes to kick the talks along, Korean parliamentarians can be contrary, even though Lee’s party has a big majority. A few years back Helen Clark thought she had got the nod from the Prime Minister to thaw the long-frozen trade talks with Japan. Progress: nil.

But is trade the whole story?

Read Murray McCully’s June 25 speech to the Otago University foreign policy “school” on China: it overwhelmingly focused on the economic relationship. He did mention “culture and sport”, but in the context of the rugby world cup, which is mainly a commercial event. v That is a narrow frame, as Professor David Shambaugh of George Washington University, who spoke at the foreign policy “school”, noted in a seminar on China in Wellington last week.

Dealing with China must be done with eyes open, he said. That requires a broad and deep understanding of China at all levels: economic issues, sure, but also politics, society, history, culture and strategic, military and foreign policy.

Has Key taken such a course of learning about China? Has McCully? Do they know as much about China as Chinese leaders know about New Zealand?

The broadening needs to start in schools, Shambaugh said: not just language but history and culture. Ask a young Chinese immigrant and you will get the answer I got last week from a 21-year-old who came here at age 6: most schools skimp on China studies.

Yet McCully says China was our saviour during the financial crisis and will be a great part of our future. To quote: “There is no doubt that it will be China that will be the dominant influence over our prospects in the years ahead.”

He added: “We are well placed to continue to build what is already a tremendously successful relationship.”

Ahem. The Chinese have a way of making people feel special (if they want to). China has numerous “special relationships”. China’s foreign policy is tied tightly to its national interest and at some point that may not fit with our needs and hopes. And without building a broader understanding of China, we are unlikely to build well.

The 21-year-old’s degree includes French. Why French? Because her secondary school taught it.

On McCully’s trade-weighted calculus France doesn’t rate. It is No 19 export destination. China is No 2.

A tough-minded, strategic Prime Minister of the sort Key will meet this week would call in his education ministers and demand a catch-up strategy to drive China-learning into the schools.

How? On the sidelines of a meeting of chief executives of Pacific rim universities last week an Auckland academic privately argued doing in reverse what east Asian countries have been doing: importing several hundred teachers from China to go to work in our schools. An Asian-style Prime Minister would add tough quotas of pupils taught about China.

Getting more China-savvy pupils out of the schools would increase demand for more from universities, which are slowly lifting their game but largely in a vacuum.

Of course, all this will come to pass if — when? — in 2030 Chinese are 20-25 per cent of the population and rising in the wake of China owning a large slice of our economy. Eurocentricity won’t do then.

Key has many hours on planes this next week to ponder whether action now might be better.