Asia's Informal Diplomacy

By Phar, Kim Beng | Harvard International Review, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Asia's Informal Diplomacy


Phar, Kim Beng, Harvard International Review


Track Two Discussion and Regionalism

In a world of nation-states it is natural to think of diplomacy as a formal and exclusive activity. Official speeches, defense white papers, and elaborate diplomatic etiquette further reinforce this impression. Government-to-government exchange, however, is not the only method by which diplomacy can be conducted. Nor, for that matter, is it a sufficient vehicle to help nations enhance their multilateral relations. In East Asia, Track Two Diplomacy (T2)--otherwise known as "private-citizen diplomacy"--has acquired a peculiar and distinct form. Paralleling the formal dialogues that are held in the region, T2 has evolved into a plethora of multilateral exchanges designed to help governments deal with issues ranging from economic cooperation to peacekeeping and conflict prevention.

An Academic Network

These dialogues, conducted in academically oriented conferences throughout the entire region, are sustained by scholars and political analysts who work in various semi-governmental think tanks. They deliberate on issues that have otherwise been pushed out of formal diplomatic circles--either because of governmental uncertainty on how to proceed with sensitive discussions, or because of a lack of professional expertise. Hence the need to rely on private specialists arises.

Governments in East Asia readily accept the research findings culled from T2 dialogues, and there has been a neat, almost seamless, working relationship between the public and private sectors on certain key issues. The result has been a convergence of norms and security expectations--not necessarily as a result of East Asia's acclaimed "Asian Way" of flexible consensus, but because there exists a network of T2 dialogues to screen bad policy proposals at the second track before they even reach the first track of formal diplomatic dialogue. It is this service provided by T2, in tandem with official dialogue, that allows the region to avoid energy-sapping arguments over various differences.

Perhaps East Asian T2 is best described, in the words of University of Massachusetts, Amherst scholar Peter Haas, as an "epistemic community": a network of professionals with recognized expertise and competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within that domain." According to Haas, it is the high degree of uncertainty arising from the operating environment of governments--in this instance the transition to the post-Cold War order in East Asia--that gives rise to the need for an epistemic community such as T2. It provides invaluable information in an anarchic international system.

Oxford professor Robert O'Neil has also described T2 as "a network of officials and non-official experts who can pool information and discuss their apprehensions and estimates of dangers, before beginning to evolve policy recommendations to their governments on an agreed basis." Thus, the information that T2 provides serves as the crucial first step in formulating policy responses to issues concerning the region.

Institutional Linkages

Over the last decade, T2 dialogues have become more institutionalized and are no longer merely sporadic academic exercises. Backed by think tanks and research institutes, T2 dialogues have coalesced into two separate but mutually reinforcing networks, known by their acronyms as ASEAN-ISIS and CSCAP. ASEAN-ISIS (ASEAN Institutes of Strategic and International Studies) was founded in 1988 and consists of the leading think tanks in the countries that now comprise the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Council for Security and Cooperation in Asia Pacific (CSCAP) is also composed of private think tanks and was founded in 1993 as a scholarly and informal platform to deliberate Asian-Pacific security issues that have emerged since the end of the Cold War.

Small countries such as Brunei and Laos that lack domestic think tanks participate in T2 meetings and conferences via their Ministries of Foreign Affairs. …

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