Identity and environment key issues for young - Track II delegate

Thomas Nicholls is a Masters student at Fudan University in Shanghai, where he is researching China’s national image building and soft power projection. In this article he talks about his experience as one of the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s ‘NextGen’ youth delegates attending the recent ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Dialogue in Kuala Lumpur.
Thomas Nicholls sitting in a conference room with other Track II delegates

Thomas was one of two 'next gen' delegates who attended the dialogue

In September I attended my first Track II dialogue: the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Trilateral in Kuala Lumpur. As a post-graduate student researching China’s national image, I was drawn in by the focus on major power relationships in the region.

 To be honest, I didn’t know a lot about ASEAN, other than I was almost born in Singapore, that several countries in the region had territorial claims in the South China Sea, and aroy meant ‘delicious’ in Thai.

 While preparing for the dialogue, I discovered some interesting things. I learned that Thailand had 15 Confucius Institutes and 20 Confucius classrooms – the largest number of any ASEAN country – and that Brunei was the only country in ASEAN without either.

I also heard that over the last decade China has invested a significant amount of money into infrastructure projects across the ASEAN region and in a number of Pacific Island countries. I also learned that both the Pacific Island Forum countries and ASEAN countries faced similar environmental issues - such as rising sea levels, land erosion and forced immigration due to displacement. Although I was becoming slightly more familiar with these issues, I still felt like I had only just dipped my toe in.

When I arrived in Malaysia, I took a budget taxi to the hotel. The driver was a young, friendly guy and during the ride we had an interesting conversation. He told me that he was from Borneo and, like many people from there, he came to KL in his early 20s to live and work. When I asked what led him to where he was, he told me that he used to drive oil tankers off the coast of China - but because that job required him to be offshore for weeks or months at a time, he chose to be a taxi driver so that he could spend more time with his wife and daughter in KL.

 As we drove along the highway, I saw a number of billboards – many of which were big advertisements for Huawei. I asked him what he thought about Chinese phones, to which he replied with a grin, “China – number one!” When I asked him what he used, and he pulled out his iPhone.

As the conversation lulled, I looked out the car window and saw many buildings wrapped in scaffolding and high-rise cranes dotted across the skyline. Similar to Shanghai, where I have lived for the last two years, one of the main topics of conversation in KL seems to be change. The demographics are changing, infrastructure is changing, and mindsets are changing.

 My awareness of these changes heightened during the dialogue sessions. While participants mostly spoke a lot about changes in geopolitical influence, the youth delegates raised different questions about the environment and what our countries were doing to address these issues. They also raised important points about identity.

Looking around the room, there were delegates who were ethnically Asian but grew up in Australia or New Zealand; there were individuals whose parents were from one ASEAN country but they themselves held a passport from a different ASEAN country; and there were some from Australia and New Zealand who had come to Asia to live, work, or to further their studies.

It became clear to me that as people become more interconnected through globalization, the traditional concepts of national identity and nation state that I had learned about in text books could no longer really account for the complexities of the relationship between New Zealand and Asia.

Despite the diversity of the participants’ backgrounds, what I discovered during this Track II dialogue was that young people in Asia and young people in New Zealand were asking the same kinds of questions: How is the world changing around me? How do I define my sense of identity? How can we work together to address climate change? What other kinds of issues are we facing together?

The best way to answer these questions is to first ask them. I now know that skimming the surface won’t really get you far, and that less-experienced university students like myself might not feel confident enough yet to 'dive in'. But in order to know what’s really going on and to make a difference, you’ve  really got to take the plunge.