The Newsletter 87 Autumn 2020

An absence of dissent. New Zealand’s Asia-Pacific engagement, 1989-2020

Malcolm McKinnon

In 1989, led by Japan and Australia, several countries set up Asia Pacific economic cooperation – APEC. A slew of other regional institutions followed, in the security as well as the economic sphere, and ‘regional architecture’ became a catch phrase. New Zealand strongly supported, and fully participated in, these endeavours. At a time when the Commonwealth had frayed, and New Zealand had been demoted from ‘ally’ to ‘friend’ by the United States, the country found a new diplomatic home in a region (Australia included) that has come to account for 60% of its trade in goods and services and remained the focus of most of its security policies.

But where security and trade have developed, critical debate or dissent have not followed. At their most recent bilateral meeting in April 2019, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Chinese President Xi Jinping “discussed a range of topics central to our bilateral relationship, and both welcomed the significant growth in recent years of trade, cultural and social ties, and other connections . . .” 1  However, no mention was made of difficult issues such as human rights.

The recent ASEAN-New Zealand dialogue meeting was equally bland; it welcomed “the drafting of a new five-year Plan of Action next year to focus on strengthening the partnership through focused areas of cooperation such as, trade through the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA), food and agriculture, renewable energy, and governance and public sector leadership”. 2  Tellingly perhaps, the ASEAN co-chair was the Permanent Representative of Cambodia to ASEAN, Yeap Samnang, the representative of one of the least democratic governments in Southeast Asia.

It is true that governments, in dealing with other governments, face diplomatic constraints. Moreover, since 1990 protest over global issues in New Zealand has waned, as it has in other Western countries. But two reasons for this absence of dissent are more specific, the first arising from New Zealand circumstances, the second, from the nature of the Asia-Pacific community itself.

First, where there has been dissent in New Zealand, it has not ‘Asianized’ or has been confined to an ‘Asian’ space. A New Zealand civil society campaign against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (2010-16) was directed primarily against the United States, taking no account of analogous protest in Asian countries (or for that matter the massive support for TPP in some, notably Vietnam). The West Papua movement has strong supporters among Maori and Pakeha (non-Maori) New Zealanders, but arguably this is a function of Papua’s place in Oceania rather than testimony to strength of feeling on an ‘Asian’ issue. Conversely, recent disputes on NZ campuses over the Hong Kong protests arose primarily between Mainland and Hong Kong students. Moreover, while there are several Chinese-language media outlets, voicing dissent in them can be problematic. 3  For its part, the English-language media tends to foreground US and UK news in international coverage and rely on UK and US-based news sources for reportage of Asian events.4 For a scholarly analysis of this phenomenon, though from some years back, see Mathison, D. 2012. ‘People like us: the cultural geography of New Zealand’s international news’, in Hirst, M. et al. (eds) Scooped: The Politics and Power of Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Auckland: AUT Media, pp.128-140.  The contrast with a newspaper like the Straits Times (Singapore) is striking.

Second, the ‘dissentscape’ in Pacific Asia is harsh. History provides insights. Pacific Asia in the later 20th and early 21st centuries was shaped by three mid-century victories – the US victory over Japan in 1945; the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949 and – not quite a victory but significant nonetheless – the triumph of anti-colonial nationalists in Southeast Asia. ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), at its outset in 1967 straddled the pro-American/anti-colonial non-aligned divide and overcame the other divide when Communist states joined the grouping between 1995 and 1999. For most ASEAN states, anti-colonial or anti-imperial struggles have remained benchmarks for state authority and challenges to that authority, however crafted, are met with scepticism. Communist China’s joining of APEC (1991) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (1994), in no way indicated a readiness to tolerate domestic dissent, as the suppression of student protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and many subsequent events, have made clear.

What next?

Nonetheless, change may be more likely in Pacific Asia than in New Zealand. The New Zealand government has supported some low-key initiatives in support of civil society activity in Southeast Asia. 5 See  But recent surveys disclose minimal awareness on the part of the New Zealand public of, for example, APEC. There have been episodes of anti-Asian prejudice since the advent of Covid-19 and majority support for an ongoing blanket ban on travellers from China, first imposed at the outbreak of the epidemic, despite the extreme disruption this has caused many New Zealanders with family ties to China.  

Democratic transformations took place in South Korea and Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia in the 1980s and 1990s. Are others likely? In February 2019 Malaysia hosted a ‘democracy festival’ that attracted 400 participants from eight ASEAN countries. And in November 2019 Malaysian MPs from both government and opposition parties openly met Cambodia opposition leader Sam Rainsy despite his being barred from entering Cambodia, a ban that governments in both Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur complied with. 6  The most recent communique of the ASEAN heads of government had one of the lengthiest-ever statements about human rights. 7, see section 22.  Hopefully, as the dissentscape matures in Pacific Asia, New Zealanders will be prepared to contribute to it and support it more than is evident at present.

Malcolm McKinnon (Victoria University of Wellington) is the author, among other titles, of Immigrants and Citizens: New Zealanders and Asian Immigration in Historical Context (1996) and New Zealand and ASEAN: a history (2016)