14 Apr 2024

Christopher Luxon readies for 'full-on' Southeast Asia tour

7:31 am on 14 April 2024
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon speaking at post-cab

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon speaking at post-cab Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Off to Southeast Asia with a pep in his step, Christopher Luxon is determined to prove the scoffers wrong in his promise to "raise the energy" of international engagements.

"I do everything full-on," Luxon told RNZ in an interview previewing his first prime ministerial trip outside Australasia. "It's great to be out and about in the world."

The week-long mission begins Sunday morning - assuming the Boeing 757 gets off the ground - and will swing through Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines.

The destinations are part of a "very deliberate" reset of foreign policy under the new coalition, featuring a redoubled effort on select Southeast Asian nations.

"This is a region that has huge strategic and commercial importance to New Zealand," Luxon said. "It's where our security, but also our prosperity, really lies going forward."

Judging by recent prime ministerial travel, the region appears to have been largely overlooked.

While Dame Jacinda Ardern dropped into Singapore in 2022, the last NZ prime minister to make a dedicated bilateral visit to Thailand was Sir John Key in 2013.

When it comes to the Philippines, one must go back as far as Helen Clark in 2006. The media release announcing the travel initially claimed there had been a visit in 2010, but after queries from RNZ, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) admitted it had provided "incorrect information".

That's not to say New Zealand has been wholly absent. Prime ministers have regularly attended ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) meetings, but an MFAT briefing from December warned that was "insufficient on its own" for future-proofing relationships.

Asia New Zealand Foundation chief executive Suz Jessep told RNZ recent governments "haven't necessarily done all we can" to deepen relations and had been "fairly insular" since the Covid-19 pandemic.

The reason for the invigorated focus on Southeast Asia is two-fold - trade and security.

Luxon has made no secret of his ambition to double exports over the next decade, and sees Southeast Asia as key to achieving that. He is bringing with him a team of 24 business representatives from a range of sectors, led by Fonterra chief executive Miles Hurrell and Air NZ chair Dame Therese Walsh.

"What I want to do is expose those business leaders in New Zealand to the potential of that market," Luxon told RNZ. "These are markets that I know well, I've spent a lot of time in these countries, I know there's lots of opportunity."

As a bloc, Southeast Asia represents the world's fifth-largest economy and boasts some of the fastest growth rates.

New Zealand already has incredible market access, having signed bilateral trade deals with Singapore and Thailand, as well as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the trans-Pacific trade pact. New Zealand's exports to the region have grown 13 percent in the past year alone.

But former diplomat and trade expert Charles Finny told RNZ there was "enormous scope" to make better use of that architecture, particularly when it came to international education.

"Look at how much Australia is doing in that part of the world. What we do is paling into insignificance," Finny said.

Charles Finny, who's a partner with Saunders Unsworth in Wellington.

Charles Finny. Photo: Photography By Woolf / Supplied

Maximising trade in the region also serves the dual purpose of reducing New Zealand's reliance on China, still its number one trading partner by a long margin. That vulnerability has become a more pressing concern in recent years as China and the United States tussle for primacy.

The power struggle is sure to be keenly discussed in bilateral sit-downs, especially in the Philippines which in recent months has clashed with China in the disputed South China Sea.

"There's no doubt about it, there's more geopolitical tension in the Indo-Pacific region in general," Luxon said. "It's in our interests that there is stability, peace and security."

The matter takes on greater significance given the volatility which could come from the return of Donald Trump to the White House in this year's US elections.

Victoria University's Centre for Strategic Studies director David Capie said increasing uncertainty around the world superpowers made it all the more important to strengthen relationships elsewhere.

"We don't want a region where the rules are only made by the big guys," Capie said.

"When the elephants are having a fight, you could easily get trampled," Finny said.

The MFAT briefing in December described Southeast Asia as "integral" to NZ's security and warned of a very real "risk of miscalculation" given mounting tensions in seas which "cover over half of New Zealand's trade".

As well as words of support then, Luxon may well expect to be asked for a firmer commitment when it comes to defence spending - which currently sits at just 1 percent of GDP, about half that of NZ's traditional allies. Both ACT and NZ First campaigned on lifting spending to 2 percent by 2030 and now-Foreign Minister Winston Peters has repeatedly cited the need for New Zealand to pull its weight.

Capie said other countries may be "too polite" to raise their concerns publicly, but would certainly be interested to learn Luxon's commitment one way or the other.

While Luxon has made positive sounds toward the cause, he has also cited the tough economic conditions and tight constraints surrounding this year's Budget.

"Yes, over time, we need to spend more money on defence, for sure," Luxon said. "[But] we've also got a big fiscal situation to deal with as well, before we would stepchange our government spending in that space."

Luxon will sit down with all three countries' leaders during his visit. He is an open admirer of Singapore's Lee Hsein Loong and they have met twice before. Luxon will also meet with deputy PM Lawrence Wong, who is expected to succeed Lee later this year.

Thailand's new prime minister Srettha Thavisin took office just two months before Luxon, and they share a similar focus on business and investment. Thavisin is a former real estate tycoon and the country's first civilian prime minister in nine years.

And in the Philippines, Luxon will meet President Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr, also known as 'Bongbong'.

Luxon departs New Zealand on Sunday morning. He will spend two nights each in Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines before returning to New Zealand on 21 April.

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