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Greater personal contact needed to turn New Zealand cooling on Asia: expert


15:30, March 27, 2013

WELLINGTON, March 27 (Xinhua) -- New Zealanders need to develop greater personal contacts with Asian cultures and communities in order to increase their understanding of a continent that is increasingly significant to their future, John McKinnon, head of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, said Wednesday.

McKinnon told Xinhua by phone that the foundation's annual survey of New Zealand perceptions of Asia and Asian peoples, released last week, showed a slight cooling towards the continent last year.

It found 23 percent of respondents believed that New Zealanders felt cooler toward people from Asia compared with 18 percent in 2011, while 17 percent said they saw New Zealand as "part of Asia, " down from 22 percent in 2011.

The survey attributed the findings to changes in New Zealand's economy at the time, including the high unemployment rate, but also said that "conflicts, threats and instabilities in Asia" -- such as the territorial dispute between China and Japan and tensions on the Korean Peninsula -- also affected perceptions.

However, McKinnon said the general feelings of warmth towards Asia remained relatively high and the opinions reflected "many divergent views" on a range of issues including trade, investment and immigration.

"I think what is clear -- not just through this survey, but others in the past -- is that reactions are colored by what's in the news at the time," he said.

"By and large the survey represents a country that sees and values our linkages with Asia."

Some of the findings present seeming contradictions in viewpoints: 79 percent of New Zealanders believed free trade agreements with Asia would have positive impacts over the next 20 years and the majority see benefits in Asian investment, but 52 percent believed New Zealand was "doing enough" to develop business links and only 28 percent believed more should be done.

McKinnon said the data had to "stand for itself."

"When you look at the response in total, we do see Asia as one of the likely ways to move out of the economic situation," said McKinnon, a former New Zealand ambassador to China and Mongolia, who took up his current post in December last year.

Some results pointed to areas where the foundation's work could be more effective, with findings showing that New Zealanders living outside the major cities and those on lower incomes being less likely than average to view Asia as very important to the country's future.

McKinnon also admitted it was "a puzzle to be honest" that only 5 percent positively recalled celebrations such as the Indian Diwali festival of lights and the Chinese Lantern Festival last year, compared with 8 percent in 2011.

"We need to make sure that the things we do are reaching or of interest to people throughout the country," he said.

"It's about building a greater knowledge and awareness of Asia and linking it with people's personal experiences -- that will come through in the way their comments are phrased as positive. People will apply their personal experience as a way to evaluate their perceptions," he said.

"We can find a way of reaching communities that might not be so exposed to Asian contacts."

The foundation would be committed to "building up knowledge in schools and building up communications" across the country through activities such as Asia awareness programs in its schools network.

"Giving people the ability to feel comfortable with these things is an important part of what we do."

The Asia New Zealand Foundation, founded in 1994, is a public- private organization that aims to increase New Zealanders' knowledge and understanding of Asia.

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