Youth Diplomacy in ASEAN: Bridging the Socio-Cultural Divide
While diplomacy has conventionally been conceptualised as official intergovernmental interactions, this field of international relations has undoubtably broadened to accommodate for the socio-cultural and interpersonal cooperation necessary for our modern globalised world. Especially important within the network of ASEAN, a union built on the desire to promote regional peace through dialogue and confidence-building measures, informal diplomacy increasingly offers an alternative route towards better regional understanding and connections (Weissman, 2008). As a population highly engaged with issues like climate change and human rights, young people in particular have emerged as a community capable of wielding exceptional influence as alternative diplomatic actors and succeeding in areas that official means cannot. Although official diplomacy undoubtably remains vital to cultivating inter-state relations, the emergence and success of nonofficial diplomacy emphasises the meaningful diplomatic work that young people have been undertaking and shows how they have been negating the shortcomings of government-to-government diplomacy.
Traditionally, diplomacy has centred around the interactions and negotiations of official actors and channels – as so-called first-track diplomacy (Feng, 2018). Yet despite its proven success, this track alone has been unable to fully achieve the goals of the ASEAN community, necessitating the involvement of nonofficial actors through second-track diplomacy and ultimately opening the diplomacy field to all citizens.
With the ASEAN Charter encouraging all sectors of society to participate in regional integration and community building, ordinary citizens are essential to developing a people-oriented and people-centred community (Anantasirikiat, 2021). As a result, diplomacy itself has expanded to include additional priorities, seeking not only to alter economic or political alliances, but also the informal networks of identities, interests, and perceptions within and between nations. By prioritising interpersonal connections, second-track diplomacy has the potential to reduce conflicts through improved understanding, decrease tensions by humanising the “other”, and address root cause of regional problems (Mursitama, 2012).
While second-track diplomacy has been gaining traction since the 1990s, concrete examples of this approach have mostly been witnessed within ASEAN in recent years due to its close alignment to the institution’s goals. One such example is the Network of East-Asian Think-Tanks (NEAT), which aims to build a stronger East Asian Community between ASEAN, China, Japan, and South Korea while producing policy ideas and recommendations to benefit these nations (Mursitama, 2012; Weissman, 2008). By consolidating academic collaboration, with goals to expand educational networks within ASEAN, both young academics and experienced professionals have been recognised as essential in the regional exchange of knowledge and innovation. Through means such as NEAT, the ideas, consensus, and support-building capabilities of second-track diplomacy have been expanded, allowing not only for greater diversity of diplomacy, but also the development of the resources necessary for effective first-track diplomacy (Feng, 2018). This reciprocal duality of diplomacy is necessary for successful Asian cooperation and development. However, as the potential of nonofficial diplomacy lies predominantly in the extent to which ordinary citizens can contribute to their nations domestically and internationally, this track should not solely be confined to a supportive role, but allowed to develop independently to best utilise different actors and resources.
ASEAN Youth Diplomacy
Potentially the most exciting aspect of the broadening field of diplomacy is the opportunity presented for youth as increasingly powerful nonofficial diplomats. While second-track diplomacy is clearly important to the socio-cultural goals of ASEAN and its neighbouring nations, this is especially pertinent when considering the role that young populations can and should play. Representing a significant segment of the population within Asia, young people have served as pioneers for social change due to their unique perspectives and skills, and ultimately represent the future leaders of the region (Adducul, 2020). This recognition has firmly brought youth into diplomatic roles that were previously inaccessible.
ASEAN has encouraged these diplomatic opportunities for youth after recognising the socio-cultural shortcomings of the institution that young people could overcome. With the goal of creating an “environment at regional, national, and local levels... [to address] the needs [and] fulfils the aspirations of young people” (ASEAN Youth Forum, 2014, pp.1), the ASEAN Youth Forum represents an example of this encouragement. Through the establishment of an environment for young individuals to discuss solutions to international issues such as education, migration, health, and climate change (Adducul, 2020, pp.1), young people have been able to contribute their innovative ideas capable of affecting future policy decisions in new ways. Furthermore, with creative means of interaction seen through projects such as the Ship for Southeast Asia and Japanese Youth Program, in which young delegates cruise participant nations to interact with foreign dignitaries, discuss social issues, and showcase their cultures among their peers (Adducul, 2020), modes of diplomacy are adapting to appeal to a wider range of individuals and bring the most out of the youth involved. By promoting meaningful friendships as a route to understanding and cooperation, the interpersonal and communication skills of young people offer an alternative to official governmental relations – potentially producing more effective long-term inter-cultural understanding. Ultimately, youth cultural exchanges have pushed the meaning of diplomacy, extending the field to the realm of interpersonal connections alongside traditional state agreements, while altering the actors able to participate.
Aspirations for the future
As a set of diplomatic approaches, both official and nonofficial means and actors within ASEAN must continue to support the distinct strengths of each other to achieve the most efficient cooperative framework. Importantly, neither track of diplomacy can succeed without greater accommodation of the other – with second-track diplomacy especially vulnerable to the decisions and changes within traditional institutions. As nonofficial diplomacy relies heavily on official actors and institutions for funding and resources, greater support is needed to ensure that the innovation of second-track diplomacy can continue independently (Feng, 2018).
By investing in the continued promotion of youth diplomacy, ASEAN can ensure that its policies and institutions remain inclusive and successful for the long-term. As “this people-to-people diplomacy... centres on people dynamics and interaction that will gradually shape interstate relations. The nature of interaction in youth diplomacy may bring a fundamental shift towards a more cohesive ASEAN” (Adducul, 2020, pp. 2). By promoting new modes of interaction and areas of importance, track two youth diplomacy will continue to provide the analytical insight and cultural understandings necessary to guide and achieve the most effective policy outcomes – ultimately improving the functions of official first-track diplomacy.
Yet arguably there is still a greater and more active role that the Asian youth can play for their potential to be fully utilised within regional relations. With calls for the expansion of current channels of cooperation, such as the growth of NEAT or the formation of an official APT Public Diplomacy Network, as well as the establishment of informal networks, such exchange programs through education, sports, and tourism, youth can further be placed at the centre of regional collaboration and understanding (Anantasirikiat, 2021: Jia, 2012). As socio-cultural exchanges are integral to both interpersonal and intergovernmental relations, Asian cooperation benefits from dialogues between diverse communities, of which young diplomats are a prime example (Weissman, 2008).
To achieve a peaceful and integrated regional community and to ensure that interstate political or economic cooperation does not become obsolete, it is essential that socio-cultural collaboration is also advanced. As one of the largest yet most underutilised communities, it is youth that must be empowered to take on the responsibility of this role. By sharing their unique perspectives on the issues most pertinent to them, collaborating on innovative ideas, and investing in meaningful regional personal connections, youth diplomacy excels in ways that official state diplomacy cannot – demystifying the goals and functions of institutions such as ASEAN, and transferring greater political power into the hands of ordinary citizens.
Adducul, L. (2020). Strengthening the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Pillar through Youth Diplomacy. Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies Commentaries, 6(1). Retrieved from: https://www.fsi.gov.ph/strengthening-the-asean-socio-cultural-pillar-through-youth-diplomacy/.
Anantasirikiat, S. (2021). Public Diplomacy Matters for the Future of ASEAN. CDP Blog. Retrieved from: https://uscpublicdiplomacy.org/blog/public-diplomacy-matters-future-asean.
ASEAN Youth Forum. (2014). The Yangon Declaration: ASEAN Youth Statement. Retrieved from: https://aseanyouthforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/AYF-Yangon-Declaration.pdf.
Feng, H. (2018). Track 2 Diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific. Asia Policy, 13(4), pp.60-66. Retrieved from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26533128.
Jia, R. (2012). An Agenda for Promoting Cultural Exchanges and Cooperation. Policy Perspectives, 9(1), pp.145-148. Retrieved from: www.jstor.org/stable/42922695.
Mursitama, T. (2012). Second Track Diplomacy in ASEAN+3: The Case of Indonesia and Network of East Asian Think-Tanks (NEAT). International Affairs and Global Strategy, 5, pp.5-10. Retrieved from: https://ir.binus.ac.id/files/2013/08/NEAT.pdf.
Weissman, M. (2008). Peacebuilding in East Asia: The role of Track 2 diplomacy, informal networks, and economic, social, and cultural regionalization. In J., Bercovitch, K.B., Huang., and C.C., Teng (Eds.). Conflict Management, Security and Intervention in East Asia (1st ed., pp.67-82). London: Routledge.