New Zealand’s future is Asian, above all Chinese‘ wrote Martin Jacques during his recent visit to New Zealand. Buttressing his case were what he saw as unique New Zealand attributes: its significant Maori and Polynesian cultures, the increasing numbers of Chinese Kiwis, New Zealand’s pure food and authentic tourism (it’s not for nothing that New Zealand’s tourism slogan is ‘100% Pure’), and its close political, economic and cultural connection with China.

Much of what Jacques said in New Zealand was not necessarily news. New Zealand’s population, as much as its economy, is reorienting to Asia. New Zealand, arguably, is much more aware of China’s rise and what it means for the world than is much of Europe, or even America. New Zealand’s officials and academics alike are spending hours analysing what China’s rise means for New Zealand.

What New Zealand can do in response is the salient issue. Jacques argued that Mandarin Chinese should be compulsory in schools, a debate the Asia New Zealand Foundation began earlier this year. Not speaking Chinese, he said, would be like having one hand tied behind your back.

New Zealanders look across the ditch and see a substantial white paper on Asia, grand announcements on Asian languages, tightening economic bonds with China, and ‘Jakarta before Geneva’. Not all rhetoric necessarily matches reality, but for all of Australia’s links with Asia, New Zealanders may face a time (as was signaled briefly in economic trends earlier this year) when China will permanently surpass Australia as its principal trading partner.  Where Australia treads today, New Zealand may walk tomorrow.

For Jacques the rise of China (and its ability to ‘rule the world’) is aided and abetted by the decline of the West. He is no US booster and a world under China’s rule will have room for only one superpower, itself. There is, as Jacques comprehensively argues, a case to be made for China’s rise, and for being prepared for the consequences of a larger, more powerful China.

New Zealand, like Australia, is trying to figure out what this future will look like. But here I would differ from Jacques’ analysis. The world to come will not be China and the rest; nor, for all its present problems, will it be a world without the US as a major player. Consider too Brazil, South Korea, the EU, even Australia itself, and the picture is not of a new superpower ruling the world but of several large and middle powers both creating and responding to a new kind of multipolar world. And that is a much more complex proposition, in lots of (easier) ways, to the one that Jacques puts forward.

New Zealand needs to understand China better. New Zealanders need to speak its language and engage with it in sophisticated ways. It needs to confront some realities about its changing demography. But it can’t rest there. New Zealanders often see Asia through the lens of China but the rest of Asia (and elsewhere) requires our attention too.

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