Putting the Pacific Back into Asia-Pacific

by Michael Leigh

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand—This city, the third-largest in New Zealand, suffered a severe earthquake last year, killing 185 people, injuring many more, and destroying hundreds of public buildings and thousands of private homes. Today, the commercial center and several residential areas are ghost towns, closed off to the public, while demolition and the first steps toward reconstruction go ahead.

But a visit here shows that this tragedy, which has profoundly affected the lives of tens of thousands of people, confirms New Zealanders’mutual solidarity, pragmatism, and determination to bounce back. A regional earthquake recovery authority was quickly put into place and is beginning to get the city back onto its feet. Reconstruction is very costly but is expected to boost the New Zealand economy, adding one or two percentage points to growth in the years ahead. There is ample scope for expertise from Europe, the United States, and Japan to contribute to reconstruction efforts.

Beyond disaster preparedness and recovery, political leaders, business representatives, and commentators here would like to see the EU and the United States become more active and more visible in this corner of the Pacific. Part of the push for “more Europe” comes from a sense that the United States does not make its weight felt sufficiently in the region.U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton acknowledged this in early September during a rare visit to the Pacific Islands Forum in the Cook Islands, which fall under New Zealand’s foreign policy and security umbrella. “The ‘Pacific’ half of ‘Asia-Pacific’ doesn’t always get as much attention as it should, but the United States knows that this region is strategically and economically vital, and becoming more so,” she said. Her announcement of a new aid package for the islands was widely welcomed.

If the EU and the United States succeed in raising their profile in the Pacific, the challenge is to prevent this appearing to be a move against China. The presence of a Chinese deputy foreign minister at the Cook IslandsForum helped to defuse such an impression. Secretary Clinton said that the United States wished to work with Europe, China, and Japan in the region. Nonetheless, Asia and the Pacific are strewn with multilateral initiatives that tilt either toward the West or toward China. For New Zealand and Australia, managing increasing trade interdependence with China while re-affirming their political and cultural affinities with like-minded nations in Europe and North America is a delicate balancing act.

The euro-crisis has hit New Zealand through a drop in demand for its dairy, meat and mining products by Australia and China, whose own exports to Europe and growth rates are down. The New Zealand dollar is stronger than exporters would wish, partly reflecting ­­­­­the weakness of the euro, U.S. dollar, and pound sterling. But New Zealanders and their economy are resilient, as the Christchurch earthquake has shown.New Zealand can weather storms in the EU, which is now only its third export market, accounting for 15percent of total exports, after Australia and China.The United States comes in fourth with 9 percent. 

The eurocrisis has not discouraged New Zealand from opening negotiations with the EU for a wide-ranging Framework Agreement. It is unusual for hard-headed New Zealanders to be drawn into a broad agreement of this sort that goes beyond trade. They see Europe as sharing similar values and want the EU to play a stronger role in the Pacific, especially in light of the rise of China. Observers here envision triangular cooperation between Australia, New Zealand, and the EU on aid to the 16 small Pacific states in New Zealand’s backyard. They would like the EU, one of the main donors to these island states, to be more active and more visible. New Zealand and the EU plan to host a Pacific Energy Conference here next year to promote the use of renewable sources of energy.Several of these low-lying island states are among the first to suffer from global warming through rising sea-levels and increased soil salinity.

The University of Canterbury in Christchurch hosts the National Centre for Research on Europe, which is helping to raise the EU’s profile in academic and media circles throughout the country. It is time for think-tanks and policy institutes in Europe and the United States to take their cue from Secretary Clinton in putting the “Pacific” back into “Asia-Pacific.” Australia and New Zealand are brimming with like-minded practitioners and policy analysts who are ready to enter into closer dialogue on the key issues on today’s international agenda.

Sir Michael Leigh is a Senior Advisor to the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not necessarily represent those of the German Marshall Fund.