Opinion: Track II dialogue
-skirting the issues?

Leadership Network member Marianne Dutkiewicz reflects on being a part of the Foundation's Track II delegation that visited Malaysia for the trilateral ASEAN - Australia - New Zealand dialogue in late 2017.

Last year, ASEAN commemorated 50 years – it now has the seventh largest economy in the world (projected to grow to the fourth by 2050), the third largest labour force and a rapidly growing middle class. ASEAN is a hub for regional trade and economic growth.

The ASEAN representatives at the ASEAN-New Zealand-Australia Track II dialogue late last year were predominately academics representing national think tanks. There was an abundance of expertise and knowledge in the room but, to be honest, I was surprised by the hesitancy to engage in a robust discussion on sensitive issues of key regional importance.

Marlene Dutkiewlcz

Marianne Dutkiewicz: I was surprised by the hesitancy to engage in a robust discussion on sensitive issues of key regional importance."

My observation was that there was an expectation and/or pressure, whether explicit or implicit, on ASEAN representatives to 'tow the line' or 'stick within the box' of their country perspectives and thus the environment was not fertile to share their personal ideas or views. 

The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade boasts that two-way trade between ASEAN and New Zealand has grown from US$133 million in 1975 to nearly $12 billion in 2016.

Recognising the importance of these economic relationships, dialogue participants discussed both existing and proposed regional trade and economic architecture: ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (AANZFTA), Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the newly revived Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CP-TPP).

Instead of focusing on the success of the AANZFTA as a model to move forward in existing negotiations, the dialogue cautiously danced around by the role and motivations of major powers (namely China and the US) in such agreements. With the role of China and the US in ASEAN being a key regional issue, I was glad to see the conversation heading in this direction. However, as indicated above, the discussion did not develop into a robust sharing of views on this issue.

The question of ASEAN unity feature prominently in the dialogue with diverging views from participants on whether the regional grouping was growing closer or further apart.

Throughout the dialogue, I did not hear a unified ASEAN view on any of the issues discussed, which I believe is indicative of the challenges ASEAN dialogue partners face in engaging with the regional body.

The unique style of ASEAN diplomacy, colloquially called the "ASEAN way" was discussed as both a potential driver and hindrance of ASEAN unity.

The “ASEAN way” emphasises an unwillingness to interfere in matters that are personal or unique to member states.

ASEAN’s consensus-based decision-making approach is another product of the principles outlined above. This approach requires all ASEAN initiatives to have full member state agreement and support.

On the theme of breaking with the status quo, the dialogue organisers took the opportunity to test out a topic that has not traditionally been associated with foreign policy - digital disruption.

The session, entitled "The Convergence of Technology, Foreign Policy and Security", featured lively and forward-looking presentations from a cross-sectoral panel, which included the Foundation’s director of strategic communications and media, Mark Russell.

As a newcomer to the Track II sphere, it was very engaging, and appropriate to break away from the traditional 'academic' panels that preceded this one and hear real-world application and understanding from experts in the field.

As the youth observer of the New Zealand delegation, I was alert to the contribution of youth to the dialogue.

The digital disruption panel provided a good opportunity for millennial participants to contribute ideas and views but contributions were minimal.

I related to millennial participants hesitancy to share, as I too felt daunted to put my hand up. It was only due to the support of the New Zealand delegation that I eventually felt comfortable to share a short comment with the room.

New Zealand was well represented at the dialogue with an impressive list of delegates with expertise in a range of regional issues.

The contributions and commitment of the New Zealand delegation reinforced the importance New Zealand places on its relationship with ASEAN and vice versa. It was humbling to hear from a dialogue participant from Singapore that New Zealand "punches above its weight" on the international stage, particularly in ASEAN.

The entire experience was extremely valuable for me, both personally and professionally, and has ignited my interest in New Zealand - ASEAN relations due to the reciprocal potential and influence of each actor economically, socially and culturally.

Marianne is a Barrister and Solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand and former Professional Associate at the East-West Center, Hawaii. Playing a pivotal role in the EY/EWC Women Fast Forward: Asia-Pacific Consultation on Women’s Economic Empowerment for W20 input into G20 2017, Marianne is passionate about integrating her knowledge of law with opportunities to empower women. In early 2016, Marianne undertook East West Center sponsored research in Southeast Asia looking at women's rights in ASEAN.

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author and are not to be taken as representing those of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.