New centres aim to help NZ become Asia-savvy

New university-based Centres of Asia Pacific Excellence could provide the leap forward New Zealand needs to engage with some dynamic regions that offer top growth opportunities, writes strategic engagement expert, Professor Jenny Dixon

New Zealand has had its eye on Asia and Latin America for decades. During this time we have seen an exponential increase in our trade, diplomatic engagement and people-to-people links across these high growth regions of the world.

But this success masks weaknesses that inhibit deeper relationships with China, Japan, Korea, the 10 countries of ASEAN and Latin America, all of which which offer enormous opportunities to New Zealand and New Zealanders, if we get it right.

The latest 2016 Asia New Zealand Foundation survey found eight in every 10 New Zealanders believe that Asia is important to New Zealand in economic and social terms. But at the same time two-thirds say they know little or nothing about Asia. This is despite projections showing that within 21 years one in five New Zealanders will be of Asia descent and in Auckland this figure will be one in three.

There is an urgent need for a step change in how we prepare for our future engagement in these dynamic regions.

To make that happen the Government is funding new university-based Centres of Asia Pacific Excellence (CAPEs). The University of Auckland will host a North Asia CAPE and will join Wellington's Victoria University in CAPEs focused on South East Asia and Latin America. Budget 2016 provided for this $34.5m investment over four years to lift New Zealand’s ability to comfortably learn, live and work in and with countries as diverse as China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Chile, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.

This is exciting. The CAPEs will drive new global thinking. They will support businesses to navigate different and complex business cultures and to recognise when expert advice will enhance their business objectives. They will support business with detailed information about the complex commercial, legal and regulatory environments of trading partners. The CAPEs will inform our knowledge through politics, economics, culture and language. The aim is for us all to be more comfortable working with different cultures through greater knowledge and understanding and to deliver on bold targets for trade set by the Government.

The NZ Inc China Strategy seeks to increase two-way trade with China to $20b by 2020, and in particular to stimulate growth in services, especially education and tourism, and to develop the science and technology relationship ‘to generate commercial opportunities’. These are bullish goals, and require us to do different things, and more of them, to achieve them.

To grow export relationships, companies need to have a better understanding of Chinese consumers and Chinese channels to market, to develop their brand story and be better at communicating it. But such understanding must start at home, given there are 15,000 Chinese students studying here and, on any given day, nearly 17,000 Chinese tourists visiting New Zealand.

For the North Asia CAPE the University of Auckland will be joined by Victoria, Otago and Waikato universities. These universities all have expertise in teaching, backed by research, in business and international trade as well as Asian politics, strategic studies, history, language, religion, and culture. The University of Auckland adds its close relationships with high ranked universities in China, Japan and Korea and extensive connections built up over more than two decades in China through joint research projects, the NZ Asia Institute, the NZ Centre at Peking University, the Auckland Confucius Institute and the Victoria University-hosted NZ Contemporary China Research Centre.

We have turned to experienced partners to deliver this expertise to business through targeted short courses. These are the Asia New Zealand Foundation and Business New Zealand, including its regional network and Export NZ. We have business, government, NGO, and advisers based in-country, and will draw on this expertise as required. We are also connected with businesses in New Zealand as well as business associations, Chinese, Japanese and Korean-owned companies and banks and accountancy firms working closely with these businesses.

Of course language is at the heart of improved cultural understanding. Through the CAPEs there will be a drive to lift language learning in our schools with the expectation that over time, increased numbers of students with language ability will support business, cultural and social connectedness. Currently only one in five school students learn a foreign language – this is the lowest level of language learning in 84 years.

The CAPEs will also open up opportunties for students to study abroad. While New Zealanders are familiar with international students studying here, we want them to increasingly see the benefits of young New Zealanders studying abroad. Again, this is an investment in cultural understanding which will have high value not only for students as they look for work in the future but for businesses and organisations engaged internationally. We expect to work with a raft of New Zealand companies, Māori businesses and overseas agencies and companies such as Korea’s trade and investment promotion organisation, KOTRA, and Japan’s External Trade Organisation, JETRO, to offer opportunities for New Zealand graduates in companies based here and in North Asia.

The CAPEs herald a new era for New Zealand. We know further engagement with countries of the wider Asia-Pacific region offers enormous opportunities. But we also know we need to acquire more skills to realise those opportunities. We need to become more Asia-savvy. The CAPEs will help us do that. They will be on the job from 1 July.

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