By Professor Tommy Koh: ASEAN and New Zealand

October 30, 2018

In Praise of New Zealand

New Zealand is a small country.  It has a population of only 4.6 million.  It is, however, a country which punches above its weight in many respects.  It has been ranked by Transparency International as the least corrupt country in the world. It is also ranked first by the World Bank for ease of doing business. 

It is a highly creative society.  Sir Peter Jackson has won several Oscars for his directing work on the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit.  Other famous directors include Jane Campion and Taika Waititi.  Authors Keri Hulme and Eleanor Catton are both Man Booker prize winners.  Singer song-writer Lorde hails from Auckland.

New Zealand also excels in as a world-class sporting nation.  The national rugby team, the All Blacks, has won the World Cup three times.  Its Haka chant, performed before each match, strikes fear in the hearts of the opponents.  At the 2016 Summer Olympics, New Zealand won 18 medals (including 4 gold).  That would have placed it 3rd on the medal table on a per capita basis.  By comparison, the 10 ASEAN countries won 15 medals, with 3 gold.

I can also say from my experience at the United Nations, that New Zealand has a world class foreign service.  The New Zealand diplomats I worked with were intelligent, knowledgeable and honourable.



New Zealand made an early commitment to ASEAN, becoming a Dialogue Partner in 1975, second only to Australia.  Over the past 43 years, the relationship has matured, growing in breadth and in depth.  The relationship is trouble-free, with leaders on both sides enjoying a high comfort level.  Let me briefly review the different areas in which they cooperate.


Economic Cooperation

In 2009, ASEAN’s first free trade agreement outside of Asia was concluded with Australia and New Zealand.  The ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement entered into force in 2010. 

Two-way trade between ASEAN and New Zealand reached US$12 billion in 2017.  New Zealand’s cumulative investment in ASEAN was NZ$4.6 billion in 2017.  ASEAN’s investment in New Zealand, in the same year, amounted to NZ$8.1 billion.

New Zealand is participating actively and constructively in the ongoing negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).  The RCEP involves the 10 ASEAN countries and 6 others (Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea).  When concluded, it will be the world’s largest free trade area.  The collective ambition is to conclude substantively the negotiations before the end of this year.


Political and Security Cooperation

In the political-security sector, New Zealand cooperates with ASEAN, bilaterally, as well as through the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus). 

Areas of cooperation include counter-terrorism, transnational crime, preventive diplomacy, cyber security and maritime security. 

New Zealand shares ASEAN’s objective in promoting peace and security in the region, through dialogue and cooperation.  New Zealand is a strong supporter of ASEAN’s vision to build a rules-based, inclusive regional order, with ASEAN at the centre. 

New Zealand has appointed a dedicated ambassador to ASEAN, based in Jakarta.


Social, Cultural and Development Cooperation

New Zealand has excellent universities.  Education and training are very important areas in which New Zealand has helped and continues to help ASEAN. 

New Zealand’s development assistance programme to ASEAN is its second largest in the world, after the Pacific.  This year, the government announced a 12% increase in funding, totalling NZ$224 million over three years.

This funding includes more than 500 scholarships each year to ASEAN students and officials, including 225 places for Master’s and Doctoral degrees at NZ universities.  There are scholarships focused on advanced English language training for officials from Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.  Short-term training scholarships for officials cover public sector leadership, agriculture, renewable energy and disaster risk management.

New Zealand is no stranger to major earthquakes.  It therefore has experience in dealing with natural disasters and risk management.  That expertise is shared with the ASEAN Committee on Disaster Management and the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management. 

In the field of Human Rights, New Zealand has focused its efforts on helping the ASEAN Committee on Women and Children.

New Zealand is helping ASEAN to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.  It has allocated the sum of $200 million for this purpose for the period, 2016 to 2018.

A particular priority is supporting ASEAN’s efforts to narrow the gap between the newer and older members.  Singapore had taken the lead to initiate a programme to assist Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam to catch up with the rest.  The programme is called the ASEAN Integration Initiative.  New Zealand provides NZ$100 million to assist those four countries in capacity building.

As a champion of renewable energy, New Zealand provides technical assistance to Indonesia, Laos and Myanmar in this sector. 

New Zealand has a world class agricultural industry.  It is famous for its high quality and safe food.  It is assisting rural communities in several ASEAN states in animal husbandry and food safety.  There are specific support programme involving the 5 Mekong riverine countries in horticulture and safe food.


Focusing on the Young

New Zealand has launched two programmes targeted at the young leaders of ASEAN.  One brings promising young ASEAN diplomats to visit and learn about New Zealand’s governance and other systems.  The other involves young business leaders from ASEAN visiting New Zealand and reciprocating with young Kiwi entrepreneurs visiting ASEAN states.



We live in a dangerous moment in the history of the world.  The liberal world order which we have enjoyed for the past 70 years is under assault.  Free trade, globalisation and multilateralism are being undermined.  The US and China appear to be heading towards a confrontation.

In such uncertain times, ASEAN needs reliable friends.  New Zealand is such a friend.  Its long history with ASEAN and willingness to work closely with ASEAN in practical ways demonstrates its commitment to our region.  Together, we will continue to support free trade and oppose protectionism.  We will defend open economies and regional economic integration and oppose economic autarchy.  We will defend multilateralism and multilateral institutions, such as, the WTO and oppose unilateralism.  We will defend the rule of law and oppose the rule that might is right.  We will work for a transparent, inclusive and rules-based regional order with ASEAN at the Centre.

The Tembusu (Fagraea fragrans) is a large evergreen tree in the family Gentianaceae. It is native to Southeast Asia. Its trunk is dark brown, with deeply fissured bark, looking somewhat like a bittergourd. It grows in an irregular shape from 10 to 25m high. Its leaves are light green and oval in shape. Its yellowish flowers have a distinct fragrance and the fruits of the tree are bitter tasting red berries, which are eaten by birds and fruit bats.