Sarah: "...Track II gave me a new insight - I was now actually seeing real diplomacy, albeit informal diplomacy, in action."
In early June 2018 I was part of an Asia New Zealand Foundation Track II delegation to Vietnam. We were in Vietnam to learn about the drivers and context behind Hanoi’s foreign, defence and trade policies, and spent three days calling on officials experts, and think tanks as well as social sector representatives.
Not only was this an indepth crash course on all things Vietnamese, but also an unexpected road map for my own future.
I had previously attended similar Track II discussions in Wellington. But it’s something else in an offshore environment.
There were times where everything felt quite surreal, especially when sitting behind the New Zealand flag opposite a group of Vietnamese defence officials all in military uniform! And, I must admit, I was quite intimidated at first, both by the knowledge and experience of my colleagues in the New Zealand delegation, as well as the seniority and importance of speakers from the Vietnamese side.
Although I've studied international relations and done papers on diplomacy, and am now working as a policy analyst with experience in international policy, Track II gave me a new insight - I was now actually seeing real diplomacy, albeit informal diplomacy, in action.
I could appreciate first-hand how Track II provides the scope for testing ideas, concepts and discussing areas for potential cooperation with counterparts.
I had never realised just how much Vietnam and New Zealand have in common. Both countries have an independent foreign policy, try to be friends to all rather than pick sides, support ASEAN centrality and a rules based order, support international law, as well as regional economic integration.
Around these strategic issues, I was a bit unsure whether or not my questions and input would be appropriate. However, the delegation encouraged me to get involved and sure enough, throughout the dialogues I heard the same questions being voiced around the table as those that had been floating around in my head. It made me realise that I was doubting myself for no reason, and that pushed me to get involved.
The Dialogue impacted me in other ways, too. As well as building up my confidence in engaging with high level interlocutors, the experience helped me realise the career path that I’d like to go down.
The New Zealand delegation. From left to right: Dr James To, Sarah Paterson, Simon Draper, Prof Roberto Rabel, Sarah Pereira and Hon Steve Maharey
Over the three days in Vietnam, I gained plenty of advice and guidance from a variety of people whom I wouldn't otherwise have met, thanks to a very comprehensive programme of valuable networking opportunities that put me in touch with business people, academics, diplomats, and one particularly interesting group, the local mafia – Kiwi mafia that is.
The 'Kiwi mafia' in Vietnam is a sizable collective of Vietnamese who have studied in New Zealand, and since returned to Vietnam to further their careers – often in very influential roles.
At an embassy reception to welcome our delegation to Hanoi, I met a new friend who had just finished an exchange at Victoria University of Wellington, and happened to have taken the exact same papers I had. This meeting really reinforced what a small world it is, but also highlighted how important these shared memories and links are in building our international relations.
Funny that while we never ran into each other on campus, we would bump into each other in a city of 7.5 million people almost 10,000 kilometres away!
I didn’t really know much about Vietnam prior to this trip. Getting out and about in Hanoi showed me what a dynamic country I was in and gave me a taste of the future it’s headed towards and the challenges it’s navigating, a very different experience to reading about it in a textbook back in Wellington.
Track II has helped shape my future in terms of considering pathways on diplomacy and international relations, and convinced me I need to return and see more of the amazing country, and eat more pho (a traditional Vietnamese noodle soup)!
For now, I’m happy to have been inducted as the latest recruit of the Vietnamese ‘mafia’ in New Zealand. Given the exciting opportunities and future ahead of us, that’s a mob we should be recruiting for even more.