Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

New Zealand-ASEAN: A 40-Year Dialogue: David Capie Provides an Overview of New Zealand's Relationship with South-East Asia over the Last Four Decades and Notes Challenges Ahead

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

New Zealand-ASEAN: A 40-Year Dialogue: David Capie Provides an Overview of New Zealand's Relationship with South-East Asia over the Last Four Decades and Notes Challenges Ahead

Article excerpt

In the 40 years that New Zealand has been a dialogue partner of ASEAN, South-east Asia has undergone a remarkable transformation. From a region preoccupied with security concerns and economically weak, it has become an economic powerhouse. ASEAN, now expanded to ten members, has emerged from an uncertain beginning to become an increasingly confident and valuable regional organisation. The celebrations planned in 2015 to mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the dialogue provide the perfect opportunity to once again highlight the importance of the New Zealand-ASEAN relationship and to commit to strengthen it further in the next decade.

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When New Zealand officials met their South-east Asian counterparts to launch their relationship as dialogue partners in July 1975, the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) looked nothing like the organisation it is today. Its five members (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand) were confronted by conflict on their borders, worried about on-going insurgencies and communist expansion following the defeat of the United States in Vietnam. South-east Asia's richest country, Singapore, had a per capita GDP only 60 per cent of New Zealand's. Although ASEAN had been in existence for eight years, its leaders were still to hold their first summit. Indeed, the fact that the group had survived its first eight years was seen as something of an unlikely triumph.

Fast-forward 40 years and the transformation of South-east Asia is nothing short of remarkable. ASEAN has, of course, grown to ten countries, long ago incorporating Brunei, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and the once isolated Myanmar. Today it boasts a combined economy worth some $2.4 trillion and its members have some of the highest average growth rates in the world. Singapore's per capita GDP today is 25 per cent higher than New Zealand's. In addition, ASEAN has been transformed from an obscure regional group of developing states to a high-profile bloc that stands at the heart of a dense web of multilateral economic and security links across East Asia.

New Zealand was the second country (after Australia) to become an ASEAN dialogue partner in 1975. But not even the most optimistic officials could have anticipated the importance of the political, economic and security relationship with South-east Asia that has developed over the last four decades.

Original concern

The backdrop to New Zealand's interest in ASEAN was a longstanding preoccupation with the stability and security of Southeast Asia. New Zealand troops had fought in Malaya and South Vietnam and as part of a larger Commonwealth defence presence had 'contributed greatly to the confidence and development of Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and, eventually, Indonesia ... [offering] the prospect of a strong indigenous basis for security in the region'. (1) Prior to the formation of ASEAN in 1967, however, New Zealand officials were sceptical about efforts to pursue regional co-operation. The South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO), the Association of Southeast Asia, MAPHILINDO and the Asia and Pacific Council had all struggled to establish themselves, suffering from problems of membership or legitimacy. But by 1970, New Zealand officials were beginning to realise that ASEAN could be something different, a genuinely indigenous institution that could 'make an important contribution to long-term stability in the region'. Indeed, that it might 'in time become the most valuable of the regional organizations'. (2)

The election of the Kirk government in 1972 and Britain's entry into the EEC saw a growing New Zealand interest in engaging with Asia beyond the connections to traditional allies. There were the first signs of a shift from seeing South-east Asia primarily as a source of potential threats to one whose economic progress might offer opportunities for New Zealand and whose 'efforts at regional cooperation are therefore of the closest concern'. …

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