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Is New Zealand Becoming More of an Asian Country?

Politically, economically and culturally, N.Z. is aligning itself with the East

New Zealand locals have been known to give US officials the finger. On former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to the country in 2017, the New York Times’ Gardiner Harris remarked: “I’ve never seen so many flip the bird at an American motorcade as I saw today”.

The frosty reception came as an apparent response to the U.S.’s move to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change agreement that year, with many Kiwi Twitter users expressing their disgust for “Tillerson and what he represents – Trump & the Fossil Fuel industry”, as one tweet said.

New Zealand has always been on a different track to the U.S. on environmental policy, dating back to public protests over visits by U.S. nuclear ships in the 70s. Now, with a climate change denier in the Oval Office, New Zealand is again calling on the type of “eco-nationalism” that brought N.Z. out of the Western nuclear umbrella half a century ago to protect its “clean and green” reputation.

This ‘at odds’ with America on Climate Change is just one example of what has been New Zealand’s gradually changing role in the Asia-Pacific region. N.Z. is becoming less Western, and more of an Eastern country.

The change is cultural, economic, and political. Let’s examine each first, and what this growing “Asianisation” means for Kiwi identity.

The economy

“Our economic future is increasingly bound up in Asia’s” said Gabriel Makhlouf, the former Secretary to the Treasury, in a speech delivered in Auckland in 2016.

In this speech, he spoke of the changed direction of N.Z. trade. The future, and the future potential for N.Z. economic growth would be in Asian markets, he said. “I want to think about a world where our trade relationships with Asia are as close as they are with Australia”. This call for further economic alignment isn’t a new thing. Since 1973, it’s been facilitated by need.

Economic relations to Britain, a country with historically close ties to its former dominion, were severed in 1973 as the U.K. joined the European Economic Community (later E.U.), forcing N.Z. to refocus its trade alignments within Asia.

The scale of N.Z.’s transition to grounding its foreign economic relationships in Asia is easy to see. New Zealand doesn’t have a free trade agreement with the U.S., for example, and yet it has signed over seven with Asian nations and nation-groups. In 1961, before it joined the E.E.C., Britain took around half N.Z.’s total exports. Now, the U.K. takes only 2.5%. China, however, now tops the list of N.Z.’s biggest trading partners, at 28.8%. Of all the top 15 trading destinations, 11 are Asian. As Makhlouf says – this is now the norm and will continue to be so.

Politically and culturally

The most common surname for babies born in New Zealand in 2019 was Singh, according to the Department of Internal Affairs. Smith was next on the list, but the announcement prompted many Kiwis to reflect on the dramatically changing demographics of New Zealand in recent decades.

N.Z.’s demographic makeup is just another area finding itself linked closer and closer to the Asian bloc.

Massey University professor Paul Spoonley told R.N.Z. the news was the result of recent immigration policy in N.Z: “Between 2013 and 2018 we’ve had the largest net inflow of migrants we’ve ever seen. So 260,000 additional people and what you see in that period is that the largest group in many of the visa categories is Indian”. The Conversation N.Z. explained the history of the phenomenon: “In the 1990s, the sources of immigrants shifted from the old (the U.K. and Ireland essentially) to the new: Asia.” In that same speech given by Makhlouf, this was highlighted: “People of Asian ethnicity make up 12 percent of our population, and by 2038 this figure is projected to rise to around 20 percent.”

Politically, the Asia-Pacific is at the centre of a loggerheads between the U.S. and China: the dominant Eastern and Western powers in the region. New Zealand is increasingly choosing to take the Asian side of the influence struggle, or at least a more agnostic, less pro-U.S. approach than the other “Western”-eastern country: Australia.

A paper from the GIGA Institute of Asian studies’ Patrick Köllner on the difference in Australia and N.Z.’s China policies said this: “N.Z.’s strategic outlooks also differ from Australia’s because their ties with the U.S. are not the same … N.Z … ceased to be a formal ally of the US in the mid-1980s already … Politically—and especially in the security domain—Australia remains thus much more aligned with the U.S. than N.Z. is.”

Winston Peters, the head of the N.Z. First party – which came about in the 1990s in response to increased immigration rates to N.Z., but has, into the 2000s, changed its tack – said “Our Future with Asia is about New Zealand lifting its engagement with the region to the next level” in a speech to Parliament in 2007, as the Government released a White Paper into Asian relations.

His remarks have proved true in the following years.

What makes a New Zealander?

Changing demographics, changing international allegiances bring us round to the question: just who is a typical New Zealander these days?

Different generations would answer differently, but so much is clear: It’s not the Pākehā, European-featured “Kiwi bloke” anymore, that’s for sure. New Zealand is becoming more of an Asian country.

So what stands a Kiwi out in the global crowd to a teenager? It’s no longer race, or even accent. To me, and my peers: it’s the attitude to life, and the ethos that becomes hard to escape once you’ve lived here. It’s a love of the land. A love of New Zealand. Kiwi schools are increasingly multicultural, but we all love to go to the beach still, seemingly.

Of course, racism abounds – influxes of immigrants and a friendly stance on China are not without their critics, and New Zealand politics is home to nationalist start-ups. But, in my experience, the younger you are, the less attachment you have to older ideas of “nationality”.

Brexit and Trump are contemporary products of nationalism, but they are predominately the products of an older generation’s nationalist feelings. “Equally intriguing are the cultural politics of New Zealand. While anti-immigrant politics were readily apparent in the mid-1990s, they have all but evaporated after 2000. There is a multi-party acceptance that immigration is part of the New Zealand story in the early 21st century”, wrote The Conversation NZ.

Politically, economically, and culturally, my country is changing. Exports go to China, the US is no longer our ally in the Pacific, and Singh is the most popular surname.

But to me at least: that love of the beach, the mountains and the sun has remained the same.

Featured Image: Auckland Lantern Festival

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