Students, Soldiers, Sports, Sheep and the Silver-Screen: New Zealand's Soft Power in ASEAN and Southeast Asia

By Butcher, Andrew | Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 2012 | Go to article overview

Students, Soldiers, Sports, Sheep and the Silver-Screen: New Zealand's Soft Power in ASEAN and Southeast Asia


Butcher, Andrew, Contemporary Southeast Asia


Joseph Nye defines soft power as "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment ... [arising] from the attractiveness of a country's culture, political ideals and policies". (2) In listing the social indices of America's "soft power" Nye notes, inter alia, the following variables: immigration (specifically, the ability to attract immigrants), film and television, and foreign students. (3) If we were to apply those same indices to New Zealand--a country that is in almost no way comparable to the United States except that it is an English-speaking democracy--we would note the following three factors. First, New Zealand has one of the highest permanent inflows of migrants per capita among countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). (4) Second, the New Zealand rate of ten international students per 100 persons aged 20-24 in 2008 was second only to Australia across the OECD (5) and, within the OECD, New Zealand is the eighth largest recipient of international students overall. (6) Third, New Zealand's film industry is undergoing rapid growth and in 2011 grossed NZ$3 billion (US$2.4 billion). (7)

New Zealand has numerous attributes which might enhance its soft power efforts in Southeast Asia, but these attributes do not become soft power qualities or assets just by virtue of their existence. In an era in which both New Zealand's military capabilities and diplomatic presence are being reduced due to budget cuts, soft power becomes all the more important. And it becomes especially important in Southeast Asia. New Zealand's economic security is contingent on the safety of the sea lanes which pass through Southeast Asia, and strategically New Zealand relies on a stable region and a strong ASEAN.

This article is concerned with both Southeast Asia and ASEAN. New Zealand's bilateral relationships with Southeast Asian countries predate its relationship with (and the existence of) ASEAN. Moreover, New Zealand's relationships with Southeast Asian countries differ from one country to the next (economically, militarily and historically) and from its engagement with ASEAN as an institution. Both the multilateral/institutional engagement with ASEAN and the bilateral engagement with Southeast Asian countries are important in their own right. Sometimes this engagement is distinct; other times New Zealand may use its bilateral engagement to influence its institutional engagement with ASEAN.

Quantifying soft power is problematic. The number of international viewers of the Rugby World Cup and foreign students, the value of exported goods and services, the impact of the film industry all tell us something about the individual strengths of these particular soft power assets, but they do not tell us their combined strength or their long-term effects.

By contrast, quantifying hard power is relatively easier. This article begins by briefly noting New Zealand's "small ... but strong" hard power capabilities. Given New Zealand's limited hard power, soft power takes on added importance. Soft power can be aspirational, expressed in New Zealand's national anthem; contextual, in relation to New Zealand's nearest neighbour, Australia; perceived, by New Zealand's allies in Asia; and cultural, through demographic shifts and migration to and from Asia. Soft power can be important for particular contexts and the focus in this article is on Southeast Asia. After a discussion of New Zealand's engagement with Southeast Asia, especially economic engagement, this author goes on to argue why Southeast Asia is important to New Zealand. The final section discusses five of the soft power assets that New Zealand possesses and utilizes in its soft power engagement with Southeast Asia, namely students (international education), soldiers (defence ties), sports, sheep (and what they signify in New Zealand's narrative) and the silver screen (film-making).

Each of these five attributes will draw on different audiences. …

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