Mekong Track II shows that small
countries need to work together

Suzannah Jessep, director of engagement and research at the Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono, attended her first official informal diplomacy talks at the Mekong Track II in May. She writes about the experience.

The Foundation's Suzannah Jessep addressing the New Zealand delegates

The Asia New Zealand Foundation recently led a Track II delegation to Thailand, where we met with representatives from countries home to the Mekong river (known as the Lancang in China).

This was our second Track II visit focused on the Mekong; our third to Thailand in three years; and for me – my first official foray into Track II diplomacy offshore after 14-odd years serving in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade as part of New Zealand’s Track I diplomatic community.

Track II – or “unofficial diplomacy” – offers us a way to connect with countries in sensitive situations. We can bring together experts and interested parties to have a conversation that is unscripted and most often candid.

Senior decision-makers (Track I) are typically not in the room, but people who influence decisions are. These are the people helping to inform public and official opinion and, in times of crisis, who are likely to have the relationships in Asia that will keep New Zealand close to the pulse.

Sitting in New Delhi in my previous role as New Zealand’s Deputy High Commissioner to India, my worldview on Asia was that of a big country looking out.

In the Mekong, I got a different kind of worldview, but one familiar to our part of the world: that of smaller countries navigating challenging resource, governance and social issues with larger neighbours looking in and increasingly scripting the rules of engagement. In the Mekong, China is that country.

Suzannah Jessep:, "For me, the biggest takeaway from our Mekong Track II was the feeling of intensifying small country diplomacy."

Much like the South China Sea, where the system of international rules and laws governing sovereignty, resource-use and relations between countries has been tested, in the Mekong, China is using its asymmetric economic power to forge a style of development that sits comfortably with its own national interest.  It's expressed through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but is not always straightforward for recipient countries or their neighbours.

Building dams and casinos may generate revenue upstream, but for those countries downstream it comes with adverse impacts. Using the BRI as the single framework for engagement has left other regional organisations disenfranchised, and is setting new rules and precedents. Other stakeholders such as New Zealand have an active interest in this change.

New Zealand needs to engage early in the rule-making process if we are going to have a shot at shaping them in a way that is harmonious with our own national interest.

But these are sensitive discussions and relationships can be prickly. This is where Track II is valuable. We can serve as unofficial representatives of New Zealand, bringing together academics and other experts, and – as a small country and ‘honest broker’ in the region – convening countries who might otherwise be disinclined to sit together.

For me, the biggest takeaway from our Mekong Track II was the feeling of intensifying small country diplomacy.

While major powers might be becoming increasingly divided and discordant, there is a growing sense of community among small countries that recognise they will need to work together if they are to shape their region’s future.

Other smaller countries such as New Zealand are welcomed and needed in this effort, specifically because the sum – regional stability and sustainability – is bigger than the parts (one country’s relations with another).

We all have a stake in regional order, and we should do what we can to ensure our voice is heard too.