New Zealanders see themselves as savvy about Asia, but the new head of the Asia New Zealand foundation says that doesn't stack up with reality.
Former diplomat Simon Draper says discussions relating to Asia tend to focus almost exclusively on China and are marked by a mercantilist approach.
"What I learnt from my time in Asia and my time as a diplomat is when other countries say 'relationship', they don't mean 'selling stuff'." Draper says there appears to be a shallowness in the approach many New Zealand firms take to growing their business in Asia.
"I want New Zealanders to grab what I think is a fantastic opportunity," he says. "Our geography has been an historical disadvantage for so long and now we are at the heart of Asia-Pacific.
"What a fantastic place to be, but if we want to really maximise the value of that, then I think we've got to be a little bit more considered and understand our customer better and understand what motivates them.
"And yes, I'm sure that price is important, and yes, I'm sure that quality is important, but I also think in the Asian context there is a whole lot of other stuff that really counts and I'm not sure that we as a country are considering that enough."
As an island nation, New Zealand's outlook on the world is markedly different from the way continents see the world, says Draper.
"Do we understand that a national characteristic of New Zealanders in many ways is we are incredible short-termists compared to any other country I've been in, so when a businessperson comes to me and says 'Asia, I really tried; I was there for 18 months and we didn't turn a penny', it's like, '18 months - you have a different time-scale'." Draper has heard feedback from Asian firms that New Zealand companies are great when it's all going well, but when things get tough they're off chasing opportunities elsewhere.
"People say we've had a really successful relationship with China because of the FTA - well have we?
"Yes, we've sold a lot more but could we have sold double or triple if we'd been a bit cleverer about it?
"How many firms are really established in China?" As other countries sign free-trade agreements with China and New Zealand's upgrade to the original deal founders, Draper says questions should be asked about why a revised FTA is proving such hard work.
"I would argue that maybe New Zealand firms haven't used that first-mover advantage to establish deep and lasting relationships."
Draper's own Asian connections date back to the 1980s when he kicked off his OE backpacking in China. After studying in Italy and some time in corporate roles, the fifth generation Aucklander became the first of his family to eschew commerce and move to Wellington and the public service.
Joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, his first posting was Korea for four years. What followed was a mix of "nice postings" overseas and "tough jobs" in New Zealand.
The nice postings included stints in Rome and New Caledonia, while the tougher assignments were working as Simon Upton's private secretary, director of the chief executive's office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and coordinating New Zealand's campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council.
"It was that, actually, that made me very interested in this role because New Zealand had to convince 193 member states to vote for them for the Security Council and our strongest support didn't come from the Pacific, it didn't come from Europe.
"New Zealand's strongest support came from Asia, and that reignited in me the interest in what is it about New Zealand that is interesting for Asians."
The Foundation, now in its 22nd year, was set up to equip New Zealanders to survive, thrive and succeed in Asia, he says.
"What we know is, the more non-Asian New Zealanders mix with Asians and experience Asia, the better they feel about it and the more confident they feel about it." Among other things, the organisation backs the popular Diwali and Lantern Festival, helps journalists cover Asian stories and connects businesspeople with Asian counterparts.
It is now scaling back seminars on "doing business in Asia" in favour of graduate internships in the region.
Draper says his experience of China as a 19-year-old had a marked impact on him and there is potential for New Zealand firms to benefit hugely from the soft skills of staff who have been exposed to Asia.
"I'm not empire-building but I would argue that the Foundation has a role in making Asia seem less foreign to New Zealanders and ... can help New Zealanders understand these countries a little bit more and understand the consumer a little bit more."
Asia New Zealand Foundation
• Launched 1994 as the Asia 2000 Foundation
• Aims to boost New Zealanders' understanding of Asia
• Activities include research, business conferences, supporting cultural events & media coverage of the region
• Budget: about $5m a year