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New Zealand: Better with Australia

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COMMENTS

20 October 2011 13:52

Dr Andrew Butcher is Director of Policy and Research at the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

There's one common thread in the recent series of reports commissioned by the Asia New Zealand Foundation about the views of New Zealand's regional neighbours on its place in Asia: New Zealand is better with Australia.

In the latest paper in the series, released in Singapore today, Daljit Singh notes that 'in an important sense there is a New Zealand-Australia condominium in relation to the ASEAN region and Asia. It gives New Zealand greater weight in Asian affairs'. In an interview I conducted with Singh, he elaborated: while ASEAN elites speak very highly of New Zealand's soft power, New Zealand's role is bigger and better when it's with Australia.

Yoichiro Sato, in his paper looking at Japan's perspective of New Zealand in Asia, lumps Australia and New Zealand together in a less complimentary way: 'most Japanese still do not consider Australia and New Zealand part of Asia. New Zealand is physically remote, culturally Western, economically small and politically invisible compared with Japan's major Asian counterparts, such as China and Korea.'

Malcolm Cook, in the first paper in the series, on Australia's view of New Zealand's engagement with Asia, begins with this framing remark: 'Australia and New Zealand have long stood together in their post-colonial aspirations for engagement with (or, for some, more hopefully as part of) Asia.'

The patriotic New Zealander might be tempted to disregard the association with Australia and, in championing New Zealand's multilateral involvement and the soft power of 'rugby diplomacy' and Lord of the Rings, argue that New Zealand 'punches above its weight' internationally. But, seriously, how much can New Zealand do without its big (geographical) brother in the room? How much influence does New Zealand really have on decisions in the region? How much is New Zealand listened to in its own right?

There are some clubs that Australia is invited to join that New Zealand will never enter (the G20, for example) while there are others that New Zealand is keener than Australia to join (such as signing the TAC and the East Asia Summit).

Australia's middle-power aspirations mean New Zealand can more easily come in on its coat-tails. The combined economic weight of Australia and New Zealand is far greater than the very small contribution New Zealand brings to the region, demonstrated pre-eminently through the Free Trade Agreement between Australia, New Zealand and ASEAN.

But New Zealanders are keen to differentiate themselves from Australia on both style and substance. No New Zealand prime minister, for example, would have the gall to suggest a new regional architecture without checking with the neighbours first. No New Zealand troops were sent to Iraq.

Even in aspiring to catch up with Australia, New Zealand overtook it with its climate change legislation. Proportionately, New Zealand has a greater ethnically Asian population than Australia. And Lange's government, against Australia's bewilderment, willingly provoked the rupture of the ANZUS alliance through its anti-nuclear policy.

Yet, for all the differences, both real and symbolic, the two countries are often treated as one or, at the very least, are not treated as distinct in important ways.

 

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