OPINION: When we talk about New Zealand’s relationship with Asia, Auckland often dominates the conversation. And there’s no question that city has changed significantly in recent decades.
But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that New Zealand’s growing links with Asia have had an impact right across the country.
Recent Asia New Zealand Foundation research revealed our regions have quite distinctive stories when it comes to their engagement with Asia.
For instance, our Perceptions of Asia research showed Northland, with a relatively small Asian diaspora, punches above its weight when it comes to Asian language skills, travel to Asia and recognition of Asia’s importance to New Zealand.
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In Taranaki, China accounts for more than 50 per cent of exports by value leaving through the port. Taranaki rates Asia as the most important part of the world to develop ties with, and it gives China the highest “friendliness” rating of all New Zealand regions. And yet its residents have had the least travel experience in Asia.
Those are just two examples from the North Island. Last week, I flew down to Christchurch to mark the formal launch of the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s office in that city.
Our formal presence in the South Island was arguably long overdue, although we have engaged long-distance from Wellington and Auckland since our establishment.
The South Island’s connections to Asia have grown steadily over the past decade.
On the people front, nearly 67,000 Canterbury residents identified with at least one Asian ethnicity at the time of the 2018 Census – more than twice the number in 2006. Otago and Southland have also seen significant growth in their Asian populations, albeit from a lower base.
Of course, the South Island has a long history of connection to Asia going back to the Chinese gold miners of the 19th century.
But more recent points of connection abound. Take, for instance, a rural school in Southland where 20 per cent of the students are Filipino, due to their families’ involvement in the dairy sector. A wine expert hailing from Sichuan in China now directs Marlborough’s Cloudy Bay winery. Traditional Japanese food products like wasabi, miso and wakame are harvested or produced in locations throughout the island.
Investment from Asia has helped South Island industries grow.
Skilled migrants from Asia have been crucial to Christchurch’s rebuild from the 2011 earthquake and have also played a key part in Canterbury’s dairy industry.
Both the 2011 earthquake and the 2019 terror attack on Christchurch mosques highlighted the diversity of the city in an especially poignant way, with many victims hailing from Asian countries, along with other parts of the world.
South Island businesses are also reliant on Asian markets for a fair chunk of their goods exports – dairy, meat and seafood in particular.
Asia’s significance to the South Island was put into sharp relief earlier this year when Covid19 put a temporary stop to live lobster exports to China. Te Anau’s Fiordland Lobster Company, for instance, accounts for about 40 percent of the industry’s exports to China.
Pre-Covid-19, Christchurch Airport was also an important entry point for tourists and international students. The city has several direct air links with Asia and saw strong growth in visitor numbers in 2019.
And regardless of how they enter New Zealand, many of our international guests come to Aotearoa precisely for the sights of the South Island. It’s the likes of Milford Sound, Queenstown, and Tekapo’s Church of the Good Shepherd that bring them here.
Many cities and towns across the South Island enjoy sister-city links with Asian counterparts, one example being the active Dunedin-Shanghai relationship.
So, there are clearly solid foundations right across Te Waipounamu.
However, it can be hard for New Zealand businesses to get up-to-date intel about Asian markets. To counter this, we’ve been working with event organisers to make sure speakers from Asia are included in their events, albeit digitally.
For instance, Susan Chen of Indonesian ride-hailing and food delivery giant Gojek recently joined a webinar on Asia’s digital innovation, which we delivered jointly with the University of Canterbury Business School as one of a series. We have also facilitated Singapore tech sector leader Anna Gong to speak at this year’s Canterbury Tech Summit.
In one way or another, Asia has been at the heart of the South Island’s economic growth for many years, and the Asian diaspora has helped keep cities and towns vibrant.
Indeed, much of the economic talk during my visit last week was focused on how South Island food exports to predominantly Asian markets have resulted in a stronger regional bounce-back from recent Covid disruptions.
With food exports as Canterbury’s financial backbone, strong and growing demand from Asia and ambitious plans in the aerospace sector and digital economy, we heard a refreshingly upbeat view from a region that has suffered more than most in the last decade.
As one speaker at our event put it, “While Asia is important now, it really is just the beginning. The opportunities and potential for the relationship to grow, in part because Covid is accelerating key drivers of change, is stronger now than any other time.”
Simon Draper is the executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono.