Saturday 20 Apr 2019 | 13:46 | SYDNEY
Saturday 20 Apr 2019 | 13:46 | SYDNEY

The grand-daddy of track-two dialogues

7 July 2009 11:01

Dr Andrew Butcher is Director of Policy and Research at the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

The ASEAN-ISIS Asia Pacific Roundtable (APR) is 23 years old, and sometimes it shows. The roundtable inevitably suffers in comparison to the younger Shangri La Dialogue. It doesn’t attract the same level of senior people, it isn’t as well funded and is has a sense of a relic about it. But I was pleasantly surprised by how good this year’s roundtable was.

The global financial crisis dominated discussion, beginning with Professor Simon Tay’s opening remarks. First, a recession is not new to East Asia: 'we’ve been here before'. Second, East Asia successfully saw its way through that recession (in the late-90s) and is better placed to respond to this one. Others added the barb that in the late 90s, Western governments (in the form of IMF, at least) were telling Asian countries to reform their economic systems. Now, Asian governments are getting a message that they need to change their economic systems to get the rest of the world out of the financial crisis. As one Indonesian speaker plaintively asked, 'when will the West stop lecturing us?' 

Concerns about China’s military spending were also dominant, perhaps as a result of Australia’s Defence White Paper. A surreal conversation took place on one panel when the Australian DFAT representative said, 'Australia wasn’t talking about China in our White Paper', while the Chinese government representative responded, 'And the rest of the world has nothing to worry about China’s military expenditure'. As someone commented to me later on, they both just lied to each other and the rest of us, and everyone knew it.

Concerns about China’s military expenditure did, at times, verge on alarmist. Jim Rolfe, in his capacity as Senior Fellow at Victoria University of Wellington’s Centre for Strategic Studies (not as one of the architects of New Zealand’s Defence White Paper, which he also is) provided a useful corrective to some of the more alarmist claims. He noted, inter alia, that China’s military expenditure was concomitant with its economic growth and that China was not an imminent military threat to the region. The Malaysian Deputy PM’s assertion that China was 'at best a second tier military power' may have been saying the same thing, though more likely he wanted to put the Chinese in their place. 

Last year, the roundtable was looking forward to the end of the Bush Administration and doing some crystal ball gazing as to what a McCain or Clinton presidency might look like. Nobody I spoke to in June last year, at the 2008 roundtable, expected Obama to win. Not because they believed that he wouldn’t be capable, but because no-one believed Americans would vote for a black president.

This year, therefore, one of the sessions was devoted to 'appraising US foreign policy under the Obama Administration'. Such an exercise was quite premature. Obama hasn’t populated his State Department yet beyond its highest levels and most Ambassadorships are yet to be filled (especially, though not only, in Asia). Kishore Mahbubani made the point that all presidents are decked in great promise and then invariably do the opposite. The greater ambivalence toward US and its power was a distinguishing feature of the roundtable which, unsurprisingly, was not evident at the Shangri La Dialogue.

The ASEAN countries play a much greater role at the Asia Pacific Roundtable than they do at Shangri La. This reflects, in part, that the roundtable is home-grown. It also reflects its long-established pedigree and history. The doyens of track-two dialogues attend the roundtable; some of their networks are deep and wide. There are, however, new voices emerging, not just in the form of the Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leaders Program, which is a deliberate strategy to inject new blood and ideas into this and other dialogues, but also through those groomed to succeed the track-two elites, who are getting older and retiring. And these new voices, from within ASEAN and other regions, are a promising sign that this grand-daddy of track two dialogues has some grand-children to follow the family business.