Dynamic and Determined: Catching the vibe of Viet Nam through Track II engagement

Struck by the energy and dynamism she encountered in Vietnam while in the country as part of an Asia New Zealand Foundation Track II delegation, Professor Beth Greener looks at the Southeast Asian nation's place in the region, some of the big issues it faces and the role of Track II diplomacy in forging closer ties between nations. Despite challenges like regulatory complexity, she says Vietnam is a growth market for New Zealand's exports and a significant player in regional geopolitics, offering ample opportunities for collaboration and mutual growth.

A group photo of about 30 delegates and officials

Track II dialogues involve non-official delegations discussing important bilateral and broader regional and global matters. They can provide an invaluable way for probing on more sensitive geopolitical or other issues without risking official diplomatic relations.

They bring a wider range of people to the table and, at their best, encourage genuine, free, and frank discussion in the sharing of information which results in a deepening of understanding and the opening of new possibilities. I believe these things all happened in Viet Nam.

Delegates from New Zealand and Vietnam in discussions

The New Zealand delegation meeting with the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam for talks

It is hard to express in words the dynamism of Viet Nam. Each person we met was articulate, thoughtful, energetic, and driven.

Individuals asked insightful questions on issues as wide ranging as New Zealand’s experience with biculturalism, the climate change impacts of mangrove planting, how New Zealand saw the place of ASEAN and the role of China and the US in the region, and via what avenues we might seek closer cooperation.

Track II offers a particularly sensitive way for New Zealand to ask questions about difficult topics like labour and human rights, and how Viet Nam manages its great power relations or for the Vietnamese to ask why immigration controls remain so strict, or how we see the strategic situation in the broader Pacific.

During the trip we learnt about Viet Nam’s strategic outlook, and I was particularly struck by the peoples’ astonishing capacity to look forward rather than back – noting that approval ratings towards the US are warm, despite the American war.

Hungry for education, digitalisation and technological advancement, the people we met were positive in outlook and determined to forge new pathways and relationships and I was struck by the immense energy of a population enjoying an economy growing at 8 percent per annum.

Viet Nam is an extraordinary place.

Although some government activities currently being carried out under the guise of anti-corruption are cause for concern, as are the at times byzantine regulations that can stall business initiatives, Viet Nam is a growth market for many of New Zealand’s agricultural exports, and an increasingly important industrial and technological hub as some businesses seek to relocate from China.

It is also an important player in ASEAN and – like New Zealand – is seeking to flourish in a tricky geopolitical climate where Chinese concerns about the development of a strategic partnership with the USA need to be carefully managed.

The catchphrase of ‘friend to all, enemy to none’ would sit just as easily in a New Zealand context.

Interest in social cohesion, in relationship management with minority groups and in issues of gender equality, too, were high.

Indeed, my last act of engagement in this process was via email in sharing information about New Zealand’s experience in developing its Women, Peace and Security Action Plan - which was warmly welcomed by the New Zealand Embassy and the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, both encapsulating the ways in which Track II can help to inform policy making and relationship building.   

More than anything, though, it was the energetic and curious nature of the people we met that suggests something is brewing in the country that New Zealanders need to engage more with.

Coming from a country that had been locked down and that can at the best of times still feel a little isolated, Viet Nam feels like there is something going on, that things are happening, that wheels are turning and exciting opportunities abound. Catching this vibe can only be good for New Zealanders seeking to generate new business, education, tourism, and other initiatives going forward.

Dr Beth Greener is Professor of International Relations at Massey University. Her research interests lie in the field of international security.

The Foundation's Track II programme supports informal diplomacy with thinktanks in Asia on issues and challenges facing the region.