The delegation from the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam
I was wracked with nerves heading into the Wellington boardroom of the Asia New Zealand Foundation for my first ever Track II dialogue with the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam in late March. But my trepidation was quickly transformed into a renewed excitement and confidence about the future of my postgraduate research and work within Asia.
From the moment I stepped in, I was warmly greeted by members of both delegations, and the tone for the day was set. As we traversed the various issues facing the Asia-Pacific, my confidence grew and I pressed myself to get involved in the discussions. The agenda for the focussed on the dynamism of the Asia-Pacific, regional security, trade integration, bilateral cooperation, and my own area of expertise, the South China Sea.
Much to my surprise, as a Masters student sitting at the table among diplomats and experts, I felt my participation was valued. I will never forget the moment I raised my hand to contribute some thoughts, and the entire Vietnamese delegation turned to me and offered their undivided attention.
I understand now why Track II is so crucial to communication and cooperation between nations and organisations alike. In this environment, ideas were discussed openly and informally, and everybody’s contribution was appreciated. Such dialogues provide crucial learnings for both sides.
The breaks in between the sessions were a fantastic opportunity to network, exchange stories and information, and pick the brains of experts over a coffee. The Vietnamese delegation was friendly, talkative, and optimistic about the future of the region, as well as Vietnam’s relations with New Zealand. With my thesis topic very much focussed on the South China Sea, DAV colleagues happily provided personal insight, as well as encouragement for me to expand my knowledge of Asia in general.
A few months earlier, I had learned from Indian diplomat Shivshankar Menon that ‘creating stability’ was too often interpreted as an attempt to maintain the status-quo, and instead stability should be the ability to manage change and adapt. In our Track II discussions with the DAV, I noticed a reoccurring theme permeating all aspects of Southeast Asia - dynamism.
This triggered somewhat of a revelation in how I perceived and interpreted the Asia-Pacific in my own research. The South China Sea, and the geopolitical environment surrounding it, is dynamic and ever-changing. From this stems the idea of accepting a new status-quo, a region that does not need to be “fixed”, but instead one in which we can apply Menon’s version of stability - taking a positive, constructive interpretation of the large and constant changes occurring and exploring positive, constructive responses, solutions and ideas.
Participating in the Track II dialogue presented me with a direction in which to push my research and future work. I was able to glimpse into where this could lead and how it might have an impact. Upon returning home that evening, I looked at the map of Southeast Asia on my bedroom wall through a different lens; it wasn’t just theory anymore - it was real and reachable!