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  • Track 2 Diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific: Lessons for the Epistemic Community
  • Huiyun Feng (bio)

In the 1990s, Track 2 diplomacy and multilateralism led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) thrived in the Asia-Pacific, playing a major role in facilitating state cooperation in the economic and security arenas.1 Almost 30 years later, major Track 2 institutions continue to exert influence, while new institutions have emerged in response to new challenges. This form of diplomacy has contributed to regional institution-building and cooperation; however, the contribution of Track 2 groups remains limited, and their influence is waning. Facing potential power shifts and looming U.S.-China competition on the world stage, Track 2 institutions and scholars will need to consider how to adapt to this volatile international situation in order to stay relevant in international relations in the Asia-Pacific.

This essay will first discuss the ups and downs of Track 2 diplomacy since the 1990s, followed by an analysis of the challenges that it faces now. The conclusion will provide suggestions for the future direction of Track 2 diplomacy.

Track 2 Diplomacy: Ups and Downs

In the conventional understanding, Track 1 diplomacy is the use of official governmental diplomatic channels, while Track 2 diplomacy refers to “nonofficial” diplomatic activities that facilitate confidence building and conflict resolution among states. The increase of Track 2 activities in the Asia-Pacific in the 1990s arose as part of regional institution-building efforts and also as a response to the diverse emerging security challenges in the post–Cold War era. New security challenges such as the 1997 financial crisis, haze pollution, maritime disputes, and drug trafficking crossed state [End Page 60] borders, and no single state could deal with them alone. Traditional military means also could not address these challenges effectively or efficiently.2

The strategic uncertainties after the Cold War provided a systemic window of opportunity for idea entrepreneurs—i.e., experts and scholars—to in effect sell their products to the policy community, where there is a high demand for innovative ideas. Track 2 diplomacy functioned well in the 1990s as an innovative, forward-looking generator of big ideas. More importantly, it served as a testing ground for new ideas and proposals.3 Sheldon Simon has pointed out that an epistemic community of “experts outside government will be utilized by governments to deal with issues considered too politically sensitive for Track 1 meetings,” and Track 2 “specialists, unencumbered by governance responsibilities, can gaze into the future, anticipating issues that could become international problems and thus devise coping strategies.” 4

One unique feature of Track 2 diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific is the close connections and working relations between the two tracks—what Charles Morrison calls “symbiosis.”5 Two notable pairs of Track 1 and Track 2 institutions, for example, are the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the Council on Security and Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) in the security realm, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC) in the economic realm. The establishment of APEC in 1989 was built on the efforts of PECC after almost a decade. CSCAP’s pioneering research on preventive diplomacy was directly adopted by the ARF in the 1990s. The close cooperation between Track 1 and 2 institutions certainly facilitated the transfer of ideas from the epistemic community to policy venues. As Morrison points out, Track 1 “cooperation would never have developed as it did without the ideas and the consensus and support-building activities of Track 2. Track 2 would have been a sterile exercise but for its impact on Track 1.” 6

Another unique feature of Track 2 diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific, and also one major feature of regional multilateralism, is that most of these [End Page 61] activities were not initiated or led by major powers, such as the United States or China, but rather by middle powers, such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, together with the ASEAN countries. For example, PECC’s first meeting, the Pacific Community Seminar, was initiated by Australia and Japan and held at the Australian National University in 1980. ASEAN has also played a...


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