Time flies - Dr James To
reflects on 18 months

The Foundation's senior adviser (research) Dr James To reflects on the 18 months he's spent in the role and looks at the future of the Foundation's Track II and research programmes.

They say that time flies when you’re having fun. Eighteen months has passed since I joined the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Research and Track II programmes as a senior adviser. My tour of duty has led me to chart new frontiers – on both a personal and professional level.

Executive director speaks to a room

The Foundation's executive director Simon Draper speaking to a Track II delegation at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul

I’m no stranger to the Foundation and what it does – I’ve been part of its Leadership Network since its inception in 2006; visited the annual Lantern Festivals; and joined in the odd roundtable discussion about international and regional security issues every now and then. The Foundation also helped with a research grant that supported my doctoral fieldwork in China, Taiwan, and the Pacific, which examined Beijing’s policies for the ethnic Chinese diaspora.

My PhD led to a teaching job where I lectured in North Asian foreign policy, global affairs, and political studies. I enjoyed putting my training to good use – pursuing my research, while imparting some of my own thoughts on life for my students’ personal and career development. That latter part of leadership and capacity building still appeals to me – I’ll come back to that later.

But then the opportunity came along at the Foundation that brought all of my interests together. Instead of just writing about or analysing the outcomes from an international forum, I’m now facilitating and organising them, as well as setting the agenda! I’m inviting inspirational speakers to share their insights and expertise, and putting together programmes for them with our partners (both in the public and private sector).  And it’s all been quite a journey of self-discovery…

The biggest leap has been moving from an academic to a more policy-focused mindset. What I’ve really valued is applying my education into something directly relevant. It’s been liberating (and empowering) to practise everything that I’ve previously only ever been able to read about or teach in my former life.

Rather than citing secondary sources as I used to do, I now find myself at the forefront of the action – whether it be a research report on Asian language and cultural competency that is being launched to government advisers who will influence the way we educate our future generations; or at a conference with diplomats and defence officials talking about New Zealand’s position regarding the security situation on the Korean peninsula. It’s really exciting to have a finger on the pulse, and getting a feel for what is going on beyond what we might read in the headlines.

And then there’s the challenge of packaging all of this into something we can use to engage and share with the rest of New Zealand. Much of my job involves identifying an audience, what messages we want to convey, and how to best do that. All of these aspects are very different to the way I might have gone about writing a book, or delivering a lecture to my students. Context, format, and outcomes now have completely new meanings for me.

The Foundation plays an important role as a convenor and a conversation starter. Our deep connections throughout government and society means that we can bring key people together to discuss issues of shared concern. But it’s also about how to hook our stakeholders, and how we can add value. For every project we do, we want people to have something to take away; and better yet, for them to contribute to the conversation later on. And that has required much more pro-active, strategic thinking.

One area that we’re looking to expand at the Foundation is youth engagement. We call this project “growing the genepool”. Our traditional cohort of Track II participants tend to be of a more seasoned vintage - and while we need such wisdom to guide us forward, we also want to bring in more diversity and representation from the rest of New Zealand, and share a wider range of views around national, regional, and international strategic interests. We’re looking to up-and-coming analysts, commentators, and industry experts who can talk substantially, yet keen to listen and learn from some of Asia’s leading and authoritative interlocutors.

Jame To and co sitting around table

Track II simulations provide the next generation of Track II experts with insight into the Track II experience

To foster this, the Foundation has given out $30,000 worth of postgraduate research grants (the same opportunity I benefitted from a decade ago), and introduced Track II diplomacy to scores of students around the country. If you’d like to hear more about what this is all about, join us at the Otago Foreign Policy School in June to see for yourself!

We’ve also lined up several Track II events both on and offshore, where we welcome a younger voice around the table. We know that growing this genepool is going to be a slow burner for us – but we’re confident that it’ll pay dividends. I’ll let you know how we get on after another 18 months – and for me, that’s sure to pass in the blink of an eye!