Understanding New Zealand-Philippines Relations Ahead of PM Luxon's Visit to Manila

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon is wrapping his Southeast Asia tour with an important visit to the Philippines, the first by a New Zealand leader in 14 years.

Since forming diplomatic ties in 1966 and setting up embassies in each other's capitals, the two nations have continued to collaborate in areas such as trade, defence and security, development cooperation, and cultural exchanges.

Before Luxon's visit, the Asia Media Centre spoke with New Zealand Ambassador to the Philippines H.E. Peter Kell, and Philippine Ambassador to New Zealand H.E. Kira Christianne Azucena, to discuss the bilateral relations between the nations.

Trade and Economic Relations

As of June 2023, New Zealand had exported goods and services worth NZ$1 billion to the Philippines, with imports totaling NZ$0.36 billion, leading to a combined trade value of NZ$1.36 billion.

Dairy products are the primary export from New Zealand to the Philippines, with travel services also being significant.

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE)-Philippines has noted a growing interest from New Zealand companies in sectors such as information technology, manufacturing, and food and beverage to establish back offices in the Philippines.

In addition to these traditional sectors, New Zealand is exploring partnerships with the Philippines in renewable energy. Ambassador Kell emphasised the potential for collaboration not just to address local and bilateral energy needs, but also to contribute to regional and global energy solutions.

He also mentioned that New Zealand is looking to the Philippines to help alleviate local talent shortages.

Luxon is accompanied by a delegation of 25 Kiwi business leaders, a move that underscores New Zealand's commitment to enhancing business relations with the Philippines.

Kell highlighted the significance of this gesture, stating, “someone needs to put their foot forward first, and I think the Prime Minister's visit is an expression of our commitment to do that, to bring New Zealand up into the Philippines and demonstrate to the Philippine side that we are serious about being serious with them.”

The Philippines has warmly received New Zealand's gesture. According to Ambassador Azucena, while the two countries have long-standing diplomatic ties, the relationship faced a setback during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, with all restrictions now lifted, there is a renewed effort to rejuvenate and strengthen these ties.

"Starting last year, we resumed high-level engagements, beginning with our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials. We held Foreign Ministry consultations last June, which provided a valuable opportunity to evaluate our current status and plan the future direction of our relations. This was a key moment to kickstart our renewed engagement," Azucena explained.

Courtesy call of Philippine Ambassador Azucena ahead of PM Luxon's visit to the Philippines. Photo: Philippines Embassy in New Zealand.

Ease of Doing Business

MyNZTE describes the Philippines as an "open and dynamic economy with a young, rapidly expanding population," indicating a promising opportunity for New Zealand businesses.

Companies from New Zealand that enter the Philippine market typically have extensive experience and a well-established presence in the region, with many achieving success.

According to NZTE, the dominant sectors are traditional markets such as dairy, beef, and seafood. But for start-ups, entering the Philippine market may pose a challenge.

Azucena told AMC that the Philippine government is actively addressing these challenges, highlighting President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.'s message to the global community that the Philippines is open for business. She then added, "there are some notable new legislative frameworks and regulations that are precisely aimed at making doing business in the Philippines much easier and less complicated."

The Marcos administration according to Azucena is committed to creating a favourable environment for start-ups and innovation, which are crucial for the nation's economic recovery and growth, "This approach offers new and young entrepreneurs the chance to expand their ideas, positioning the Philippines as an attractive hub for trade and investment."

“We are very happy to see that there is a big business delegation going with Prime Minister Luxon, and for the Philippines side, we’re trying to match that enthusiasm by also putting together an impressive group of Philippine-based business leaders that can interact with the delegation and hopefully come up with concrete projects and programmes that could be mutually beneficial for both countries,” she added.

Kell mentioned that in recent years, New Zealand, known for its high ranking in the Ease of Doing Business Index, has collaborated with Philippine government agencies to enhance and streamline their procedures.

In 2021, New Zealand entered into a Memorandum of Arrangement with the Philippines’ Anti-Red Tape Authority to foster ease of doing business and enhance public sector efficiency.

This agreement has laid the groundwork for continuous dialogue and cooperation with various national agencies in the Philippines and have worked with local government units like Valenzuela City and Quezon City.

Defence and Security Cooperation

The Philippines and New Zealand have worked closely together on defence and security issues. In November 2017, both signed an updated defence cooperation agreement that allows for greater partnership in logistics and the defence industry.

Since 1989, more than 114 Filipino officers have received training in New Zealand, with one officer from the Philippine Armed Forces attending the Staff College each year.

Last year, HMNZS Aotearoa visited the Philippines, which signaled New Zealand's commitment to regional security and stability. Both governments are discussing ways to improve defence collaboration, including capacity-building programmes. But Kell believed that there's still more room for improvement.

The HMZNS Aotearoa docked at the Manila Port's Pier 15 on Oct. 30, 2023. Photo: NZ Embassy in Manila

The Philippines is facing heightened tensions with Beijing in the West Philippine Sea, marked by increased confrontations involving both nations’ coast guards, including chases and the use of water cannons in the disputed South China Sea waters.

The international community, including New Zealand, has urged all parties to exercise restraint and adhere to international law.

Recent observations by media outlets and experts have highlighted that New Zealand’s official statements have avoided directly naming or criticising China for its actions in the region. However, this stance has shifted recently, with the New Zealand Embassy in Manila beginning to explicitly call out Beijing's actions.

Kell reinforced the Philippines' strategic relevance by noting that a substantial portion of New Zealand's trade, ranging from 60 to 80 percent, transits through Southeast Asia. This economic fact underpins New Zealand’s motivation to strengthen its involvement in the region, especially in areas of defence and maritime security with the Philippines as he said, “we recognise the need to intensify our efforts with the Philippines to safeguard and promote not just our own interests, but also those of the region."

On the other hand, Azucena welcomed New Zealand’s interest in enhancing security and defence cooperation, emphasising the shared values of both countries in maintaining regional peace and stability.

She claimed, "The world has changed so much in the past 14 years. It's gotten smaller. And then we're seeing so many new challenges emerging especially in the Indo-Pacific, and we are finding that these challenges are similar to many of the countries.  The Philippines and New Zealand both uphold the rule of law, the importance of maintaining the Indo-Pacific as a zone of peace and stability, and the value of dialogues, exchanging views, and cooperation. We also prioritise democracy and the environment."

The enhancement of defence capabilities between the two countries also relates to disaster response, tackling not just regional conflicts but also the issues brought by climate change.

Additionally, the 2022 Perception of Asia report by the Asia New Zealand Foundation reveals that New Zealanders consider the Philippines as one of the top Asian nations they can rely on for security and defence partnerships.

People-to-People Ties

Kiwis and Filipinos share a rich history of cultural exchanges, educational collaborations, and extensive people-to-people initiatives. 

Filipinos are the third largest Asian group in New Zealand, with "Kiwinoys" (Kiwi-Filipinos) comprising over 1.5 percent of the nation's total population.

There are over 100,000 Filipinos living and working in Aotearoa New Zealand, making valuable contributions to the economic growth of their adopted country, where they are warmly embraced as part of the Kiwi whānau.

Azucena highlighted Filipinos and Māori people shared Austronesian heritage, noting, "We feel largely at home in each other’s cultures. We find many similarities, which is one reason for the large Filipino community here—they feel welcomed."

Filipinos are the third largest Asian group in New Zealand, comprising over 1.5 percent of the nation's total population. Photo: c/o Carla Teng.

According to Te Ara, Filipino immigration to New Zealand began to increase significantly in the 1980s and surged in the 2000s. The early waves of Filipino migrants were skilled professionals, including IT workers in the late 1980s, medical professionals in the late 1990s, and electricians, technicians, and rural workers in the 2000s.

Filipino students have been coming to New Zealand since the 1960s under the Colombo Plan, and their presence continues to this day.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade offers Filipino young leaders an opportunity to pursue professional and post-graduate education at various universities in New Zealand through the Manaaki New Zealand Scholarships, focusing on key areas like sustainability, climate change, food security, renewable energy, disaster risk management, and good governance.

In 1976, Auckland saw the establishment of the first Filipino club, and today, the country is home to numerous organisations that host events like cultural fiestas, basketball meets, and beauty pageants to celebrate Filipino identity.

In 2019, Paulo Garcia became the first Filipino Member of Parliament in New Zealand, and he is accompanying Luxon on his trip to Manila. Prior to his political career in New Zealand, Garcia held the position of Philippine Honorary Consul in Auckland.

Both governments are committed to further enhancing these people-to-people exchanges to deepen understanding of each other’s cultures, and through Prime Minister Luxon’s visit, the Philippine government believes it’s a great initiative for New Zealand to put Filipinos back on Kiwis' map.

“We have every intention to capitalise on the goodwill that will be generated from this visit by making sure that it leads to the growing interest and awareness of the Philippines and what it can offer to the Kiwis,” Azucena told AMC.

“We also hope that this visit will generate a new momentum to cooperate in other areas such as cultural, education, and activities that will celebrate how far we have come and the potential of our cooperation going forward,” she added.

On New Zealand's side, Kell believes Prime Minister Luxon’s visit to the Philippines will showcase a powerful message on how New Zealand values the Filipinos, “I think you can anticipate that our Prime Minister will make it very clear to President [Marcos] and the people he meets in the Philippines, that New Zealand is serious about strengthening its relationship, its partnership with the Philippines. It’s committed to doing that.”

“The visit aims to open doors and pave the way for New Zealand businesses to not only do more business in the region but also to fulfill an ambitious agenda. I believe you will find that the visit to the Philippines will lay the foundation for achieving these objectives,” he added.

Ambassador Kell visited the NZ-funded youth clinic inside the Luyungan Indigenous Peoples’ School in Malaybalay City, Bukidnon Province in Mindanao. Photo: NZ Embassy Manila.

New Zealand has maintained a development programme in the Philippines that aims to promote sustainable development and improve the quality of life in Filipino communities. This programme primarily focuses on agriculture, skill and knowledge development, and disaster risk management.

Furthermore, the New Zealand Embassy in Manila collaborates closely with the Philippine government to address major development issues. It is actively supporting the Bangsamoro Peace Process, working with former combatants, and assisting indigenous and Muslim communities in Southern Mindanao.

Both ambassadors claim that relations between New Zealand and the Philippines are strong, and Prime Minister Luxon's upcoming high-level visit represents a deep and long-standing partnership between the two Asia-Pacific countries, which are about to celebrate 60 years of outstanding diplomatic ties.

-Asia Media Centre