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Simon Draper: Asia conversations must expand

=OPINION: There's no way I could write thiscolumn without mentioning the recent visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Premier Li's visit follows on from President Xi Jinping's just over two years ago, and Foreign Minister's Wang Yi earlier this year.

It's quite remarkable we've had these high-level visits in quick succession – in fact, you might compare it to New Zealand's Governor-General, Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs making state visits to the Maldives.

3 Apr 2017

You no doubt heard the announcement about upcoming talks to upgrade New Zealand's bilateral FTA with China, an agreement that has resulted in a massive growth in trade since it was signed in 2008.

When you consider Premier Li's role in managing China's economic affairs, it makes sense that the FTA upgrade was the main news angle.

But when our public conversations about New Zealand's relationship with China are so focused on bilateral trade, we miss talking about other aspects of the relationship – and also what the China-New Zealand relationship means for our overall geostrategic picture.

It was interesting to observe the media coverage across the Tasman, where Li's visit prompted discussion about regional security issues and the impact of the Australia-China relationship on Australia's wider foreign policy.

Here in New Zealand, the discussions about our China relationship were largely focused on our goods going out, and on Chinese investment and people coming in.

But the cultural aspects of the relationship matter to the Chinese side.

In an open letter to New Zealanders, Premier Li commended New Zealand on being the first country to have a Chinese Language Week and mentioned the increasing number of New Zealanders enjoying Lantern Festival celebrations – an event the Asia New Zealand Foundation has been involved in for 17 years.

He also visited an exhibition celebrating the 120th anniversary of New Zealander Rewi Alley's birth, and the 90th anniversary of Alley's arrival in China.

It was interesting to see the warm response from the Chinese visitors to the Maori cultural components of the Auckland gala lunch for the Premier. During the powhiri, the kapa haka group representing Premier Li's delegation received spontaneous applause when they sang in Chinese.

I believe there's much the rest of New Zealand could learn from Maori engagement with Asia, having observed aspects of it since I've been with the Asia New Zealand Foundation.


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There's an emphasis on building relationships over a long period, rather than a focus on short-term financial gains. That's one of the reasons the Asia New Zealand Foundation is looking at lifting our engagement with Maori over the coming year.

Li's visit saw the Belt and Road initiative (also known as One Belt, One Road and the New Silk Road) entering the wider public radar for the first time. This initiative is designed to boost trade within Asia and between Asia and Europe and comprises two main parts, the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and a new maritime Silk Road.

One of the agreements announced during Li's visit was a memorandum on strengthening cooperation on the initiative.

This was an example of where New Zealand's approach differs to Australia's. No formal agreement was signed during Li's visit there and the Australian government's statements made no reference to it.

The Belt and Road could transform global trade and have widespread geopolitical implications. But there hasn't been a public conversation yet about the possible impacts for New Zealand.

The Asia New Zealand Foundation has been involved in initial discussions with New Zealand China Council and other agencies about the opportunities and implications for New Zealand – and we're looking forward to continuing those.

The Belt and Road is partly about better infrastructure – railways, airports, highways, ports – to help China's trade as the country's growth slows. The memorandum signed during the visit emphasises connectivity.

It's notable that there's a "people-to-people bonds" pillar; and for me people-to-people is not just code for selling more education services and more tourism (good things though they are).

When we talk about China, it's easy to get stuck in the detail about meat and dairy exports.

But we want to do well in our engagement with China because it's one of the great countries of the world, has a fascinating culture and offers exciting opportunities for New Zealand.

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