Keeping track of informal diplomacy: The year ahead

How does New Zealand view the issues raised through informal diplomacy as opposed to Delhi, Hanoi, or Tokyo? Dr James To, Senior Adviser (Research and Engagement) at the Asia New Zealand Foundation has been involved in many bilateral and regional dialogues as a participant and facilitator. He gives his views on the key themes that emerged in Track II diplomacy in 2018 and could feature again in 2019.

1. Asia-Pacific vs Indo-Pacific — what's in the name?

The re-emergence of the Indo-Pacific concept is something that featured consistently throughout 2018. We’ve heard various articulations and descriptions (ranging from geographic, strategic, and economic interpretations) from different actors — but there still isn’t agreement on exactly what Indo-Pacific represents.

Delhi sees it as an opportunity to make its mark on the world stage as an emerging power; others welcome India into a broadened and diversified regional matrix; the US has renamed PACOM to Indo-Pacific Command to acknowledge its scope of responsibility.

The elephant in the room is where China fits into all of this. Our ASEAN colleagues feel the concept Indo-Pacific is getting too “security-heavy”, putting pressure on ASEAN member states to choose sides.

Where does New Zealand stand?

New Zealand supports initiatives that embrace inclusive, transparent, rules-based principles and values that work towards achieving peace and prosperity under sustainable, democratic good governance. In that context, New Zealand does have interests positioned across the Indo-Pacific region, but at the same time, we are already heavily invested in — and much more familiar with — the stronger resonating term Asia-Pacific to describe our regional outlook.

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2. Maritime issues – who rules the seas?

When people talk about maritime issues in Asia, we often hear terms such as Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). These conversations tend to revolve around a narrower scope of military/security concerns - such as territorial disputes, the expanding role and reach of China, what that means for its neighbours, and mitigating tensions by way of a South China Sea Code of Conduct.

Where does New Zealand stand?

From New Zealand’s point of view, as an export-led trading island nation — all of these matters are certainly relevant, particularly the emphasis on a rules-based-order and international law of the sea.

With one of the largest EEZs in the world, our scope of interests encompasses the vast expanse of the Pacific right down to the Southern Ocean and onto Antarctica — so when we are talking about maritime issues, we’re also addressing a much wider set of challenges such as illegal overfishing, transnational crime, trafficking, and rising sea levels.

informal diplomacy

3. Likemindedness - shifting relationships

The term ‘like-minded’ cropped up in many conversations on international relations in 2018. Whether it’s with commentators from Vietnam, Korea, or Japan, there are common threads of how we relate to each other.

Historically, ‘like-minded’ meant sharing similar liberal values and enjoying open economies. This has evolved to describe the common challenges we face during today’s turbulent times — such as ‘commitment to the international rules-based order’.  

Where does New Zealand stand?

New Zealand relies heavily on regional architecture and institutions to ensure a more level playing field, and looks to others to help support those structures too.

However, multilateral/plurilateral objectives often conflict with more realist, national interests. While some our dialogue partners (especially in South East Asia) feel a bilateral direct approach is more likely to yield results, New Zealand’s view (especially as a smaller power with limited resources and influence) is more a question of ensuring resilience by working more together.   

We see strength in diversity - to preserve what we have, adapt to new situations, and find others to help respond to the changing and challenging nature of our security and economic outlook ahead — especially when it comes to working with great powers.  

In this context, ‘like-minded’ also includes countries having to navigate more thoughtfully on their China and US relationships, as we are pushed and pulled in ways we haven’t had to concern ourselves with previously. In effect we have moved from a ‘balance of powers’ to a ‘balance of partners.’

The Asia New Zealand Foundation supports informal diplomacy through think tanks across Asia as a key part of its Track II diplomacy programme. The programme facilitates exchanges of views on foreign policy, trade and security issues. Participants include academics, former diplomats, commentators and journalists. Click here to find out more