Sarah: "That Track II experience has helped build my confidence for engaging with a cross-sector of high-level interlocuters both here and abroad."
Southeast Asia’s strategic and economic importance has only grown in recent years as regional economic and political tensions rise. As a wildly diverse organisation (comprised of 10 members with diverse cultures, religions, languages and levels of development) ASEAN has made the considerable achievement of avoiding conflict with one another for more than half a century.
Joining a Track II delegation for a four-day visit to Hanoi in 2018, illustrated to me how an ASEAN member calculates their foreign, defence and trade policy through the "ASEAN Way". It was also a crash course on all things Vietnamese, which has unexpectedly led me on the career path that I am on today.
I found it fascinating to hear first-hand from a Southeast Asian country about geopolitical issues that I had previously only studied about at university, such US-China competition and regional concerns such as the South China Sea.
I realised that my pre-conceived ideas of what a communist country would be like emphasised the differences between New Zealand and Vietnam, rather than the many similarities. Similarities range from the importance we both place on diplomacy; having an independent foreign policy; endeavouring to be friends to all rather than choosing sides; and supporting international law and a rules-based order.
Vietnam has a similar stance to New Zealand on enduring and escalating regional issues such as the South China Sea.
The New Zealand delegation meeting with delegates from the Vietnamese Institute for Defence International Relations (IDIR)
Track II conversations provide an environment to test ideas, concepts and discuss areas of mutual interest with very well informed counterparts – and therefore collect a broad range of views to better understand the context and drivers behind foreign policy.
After a period working at the Ministry of Primary Industries, I now work on international and national security issues at the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
With four years in the public service, it was useful to see the other side of diplomacy and how non-government exchanges provide a different value and perspective on the same issues.
The Vietnam Track II experience helped build my confidence for engaging with a cross-sector of high-level interlocuters both here and abroad.
Meeting with various groups (government officials, military, academics and NGOs) helped me get a more nuanced understanding of issues in the space of a few days. I was also surprised by how candid discussions on controversial regional issues were – under the Chatham House rule of course!
But it was the conversations with young Vietnamese who had links with New Zealand that topped my list of exchanges. Known as the ‘Kiwi Mafia’, this group of dynamic youth often often hold influential roles and are passionate about growing the Vietnam-New Zealand relationship.
One Vietnamese student I met had just finished an exchange at Victoria University of Wellington where we had studied the same papers together - but only ended up meeting in a city of 7.5 million people almost 10,000km away!
With the world facing new challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the value of multilateralism and working together is as important as ever.
ASEAN continues to evolve alongside regional challenges, and it’s been great to watch New Zealand and Vietnam’s relationship grow from a ‘Comprehensive Partnership’ into a ‘Strategic Partnership’ - which recognises not only our ever-deepening political and economic links – but at the heart of it all, the wealth of people-to-people connections that take us towards our shared future in the region.