Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok addressing the delegates at the Mekong Institute in Khon Kaen
Why would a small country tucked away in a remote corner of the South Pacific have an interest in a region 10,000 kilometres away in Asia?
That’s exactly what 20 experts, academics and commentators were thinking when a delegation of five Kiwis turned up at the Mekong Institute in Khon Kaen, Thailand in early March.
The Asia New Zealand Foundation, with support from our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, had helped convene this roundtable dialogue that examined political, economic, social, and environmental issues in a region that is set to become a hotspot of contention over coming years.
The talks couldn't have been held without support from one of the Foundation's Asia Honorary Advisers, Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
Dr Thitinan is the chair of the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS) Thailand, and brought together a cohort of colleagues from Mekong countries – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam (or CLMTV for short) – as well as experts from China.
Several of our guests admitted they were only there because Dr Thitinan had personally asked them to join us at the table – testament to the high regard the international community holds him in.
Dr Kirida Bhaopichitr from the Thailand Development Research Institute talking to attendees
The Asia delegates told us they were seeking engagement with more partners, and New Zealand’s standing as a role model of open and transparent governance set a good impression for them. They added if it were any other country, they wouldn’t have come along.
However, the question still remained - what were we doing here? And why in Khon Kaen? After all, there’s only one or two flights in and out of the airport each day, so it's not exactly the most convenient place to hold a regional dialogue.
So we explained the history of New Zealand's relationship with ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations), and why the Mekong Institute was the venue for our talks.
As you walk into the Institute, you can’t help but notice the huge signage on one side of the main corridor - the “James Bolger Conference Room”. Yes, we’ve had skin in the game for a long time now. Bolger was Prime Minister when the Mekong Institute was established in 1994, and our official relations with ASEAN extend beyond that - back over 40 years, and with Thailand some 60 years.
And during that time, most of New Zealand’s value proposition to the Mekong focused on rural development, but this is becoming increasingly irrelevant. While countries in the region are developing at different rates and some still look to us for rural development aid, the likes of Thailand and Vietnam are now at the heart of the world’s economic growth engine.
This transition from agri-tech and capacity building to intra-regional investment and integration of value/supply chains means we need to re-define what we can contribute towards this profound transformation. So this dialogue was all about an old friend listening and learning about how we could refresh our offerings.
The next morning when we began our talks I noticed everyone else surveying the diverse representation around the meeting room. It was then that the penny really dropped about why we were there: the sheer convening power of the dialogue – bringing together different groups of people who otherwise wouldn’t usually sit around the same table.
It was the opportunity to really talk to each other about mutual interests and concerns. There were blunt messages exchanged, and clarifications on positioning made.
We made some suggestions about our experience with our Pacific neighbours, and how some of those frameworks could be adapted for our Southeast Asian friends; discussed the environmental concerns of the downstream countries that were at the top of everyone’s minds; and how Mekong countries were being pushed and pulled in different directions by both internal and external factors. All of this was conducted in a free and frank environment.
Ideas were floated and picked up or not without fear of causing offense or embarrassment. That’s the most critical part of Track II diplomacy – building upon long-term trust and friendships with our stakeholders so that we can openly engage with them when it comes to important international issues and challenges, and that speaks to the value of relationships.
Our event in Kohn Kaen was just one small step in a long incremental process of thickening the strands between Asia and New Zealand – and given the outcomes from last weekend, it’s certainly not the last.
James To has an academic background in Asian languages (Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese), political science, and commerce. He has lectured in Northeast Asian foreign policy, and is an active researcher of the overseas Chinese diaspora.