Think tanks guiding lights of expertise in China-US relations

By Curtis Stone
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, June 14, 2017
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On Monday, Chinese and American experts gathered for a meeting of minds at the U.S.-China Think Tank Symposium held in the World Food Prize headquarters in Des Moines, capital of the State of Iowa. This was the same venue that hosted then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping in 2012.

Monday’s meeting was to discuss China-U.S. relations after President Donald Trump's warm meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida last April. However, it was more than just another meeting where people talk; rather, it was a small victory for China-U.S. relations.

In his speech at the opening of the symposium, Zhao Qizheng, former minister of China's State Council Information Office, made an important point about China-U.S. relations that is sometimes missed by misinformed people: Both countries have benefited from the bilateral economic and trade relationship and the benefits are likely to continue.

Zhao then stressed the importance of maintaining frequent communications and bolstering economic cooperation in which think tanks could provide useful reference and rational consultation.

Think tanks bring together groups of experts who conduct research and produce policy-relevant knowledge. The organizations generally fill a void between the academic world and the realm of government, and their work plays an important yet somewhat under-appreciated role in the formation of policy.

In the U.S., home to a large number of influential think tanks, policymakers often rely on their cutting-edge ideas when trying to understand other countries or when crafting government policies.

The Chinese government also attaches great importance to the crucial role these organizations play for good governance and the intellectual resources they produce.

In 2014, for example, President Xi Jinping called for the development of a new kind of think tank befitting China's unique political landscape as a way to help the country modernize its governance and to strengthen its soft power. At the same time, China is trying to make its think tanks more influential.

Given the important role think tanks play in both countries, based on an official desire to increase communications and bolster economic ties and cooperation between the two sides, it makes perfect sense for the two governments to encourage communication between their leading think tanks, since their research can change the perception of policymakers and help leaders better respond to both challenges and opportunities in the bilateral relationship.

Think tanks can support the development of economic and trade cooperation by establishing an unimpeded dialogue and cooperation mechanism. For example, it was reported earlier this year that cooperation between think tanks in the original five BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – plays a growing role in facilitating the bloc's efforts.

The example shows how enhanced communication at the think tank level can be used to influence the development of a relationship, and as we saw at the symposium in Des Moines, Chinese think tanks are using such discussions to help China better understand America and for the latter to better understand China.

Such communication at the think tank level can also help solidify a foundation for cooperation in other areas of the relationship, including the security realm. For example, the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) and the Beijing-based China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) have held nine formal meetings as well as several informal discussions on cybersecurity since 2009.

This has become a way to reduce misperceptions and to increase understanding on how each country approaches cybersecurity, as well as to identify other areas of cooperation. According to the CSIS website, agreements by the two think tanks have "directly promoted" cybersecurity cooperation between the two countries.

As we can see, communication at the think tank level is important for China-U.S. relations, because think tanks have a unique and an important role to play in the development of new thinking and in the formulation of policy. The unique space they occupy between the world of ideas and the world of government gives them both freedom to think and the power to influence.

Enhancing communication between Chinese and American think tanks will not only help fill the gap between the world of ideas and the world of action, but narrow differences and continue to build mutual trust between the world's two largest economies, so that the benefits of the bilateral relationship can be maximized for years to come.

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