Column: Growing without influencing

Written by Amitendu Palit | Updated: Jan 27 2014, 05:22am hrs
If the number of think-tanks is an indicator of a countrys strategic weight and influence, then China has surely come of age. After the US, China now has the largest number of think-tanks in the world, 426 by the latest count, as reported in the 2013 Global Go To Think Tank of the University of Pennsylvania. It beats the rest of the G8UK, Germany, France, Canada, Japan, Russia and Italyin the number of think-tanks it has. Think-tanks are valuable in contributing to public policy-making through varied analytical insights. They are important in disseminating knowledge on policies and major external and domestic developments to a wide range of stakeholders including policy practitioners, business, media and academia. They are considered major constituents of strategic knowledge communities of countries and are often critical in shaping national positions on major issues. A large number of think-tanks in a country reflect the presence of a wide variety of experts, analysts and scholars engaged in public policy discourses.

In a globalised world, the impacts of think-tanks are not confined to local or national issues. Their views are sought and debated on matters of global and regional significance. Analysis by prominent Western think-tanks such as the Brookings Institution, Chatham House, Bruegel, Rand Corporation, Peterson Institute, Amnesty International, Transparency International, etc, on various policy issues are followed extensively across the world.

The growth of think-tanks in China is commensurate with the country's size and strategic weight. But have these acquired the ability to influence global debates the way Western think-tanks do

Only six Chinese think-tanks out of the 436 in the country figure among the top 100 think-tanks of the world. Only one among thesethe Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS)is within the top-20 and, is ranked at 20. The China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) and the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), ranked at 36 and 44, are the two others among the top-50.

On a regional ranking scale, however, Chinese think-tanks perform much better. China, India, Japan and Korea have the largest numbers of think-tanks in Asia. On a comparative ranking across these four countries, seven Chinese think-tanks figure among the top-20. Thus while globally, views and insights of Chinese think-tanks are yet to acquire a traction corresponding to their large size, regionally, they are obviously followed more closely.

China is relatively new to the think-tank game compared with the West. While it has had a few quality policy research institutes for a long time, the sharp growth in think-tanks is a relatively new phenomenon and has mostly happened during the last decade. The growth is connected to Chinas strategic elevation and the increasing importance of its views on global matters. The latter has led to escalation in number of private think-tanks, many of which have been affected by irregular fund flows and lack of scholastic credibility. As a result, most think-tanks have not been able to take-off and continue to remain fledglings with negligible impact.

Scholastic independence is a major issue with think-tanks in China given that many of these, almost around 40%, are connected closely to establishment, particularly the military and government departments. Their views, on most occasions, are treated with a pinch of salt. This is particularly true on matters connected to Chinas regional security and global engagement. Nonetheless, the views of older, reputable think-tanks having distinguished scholars and experts such as the CICIR are taken seriously across the world notwithstanding their government backing. Their views on several subjects, if not interpreted entirely as the official view, are generally considered reflective of the influential perceptions among Chinese decision-makers. At the same time, demand for first-hand knowledge on Chinas domestic issuesnot through the external Western prism, but from home-grown indigenous expertshas led to serious global reckoning of institutes like the CASS. The same demand has also inspired leading Western think-tanks like the Brookings and Carnegie to set up bases in China in collaboration with local partners.

From an impact perspective, except a few, the direct contribution and participation of Chinese think-tanks in policy-making is rather limited. This again, is probably a cultural trait of the decision-making process in the country. Traditionally, the scope of external inputs in policy-making in China has been limited. This is unlike in the West where think-tanks work in close collaboration with government agencies in shaping policies. Unless the scope of think-tanks contributing more effectively to Chinas policies increases, the global traction of the average Chinese think-tank will remain limited, due to doubts over their

efficacy and credibility. President Xi Jinping has highlighted the building of modern think-tanks as a major national strategy. But unless the Chinese system allows them to penetrate deeper into policy growth, the think-tanks are likely to increase only in quantity, not in quality.

The author is head, partnership & programme, and senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies in the National University of Singapore. He can be reached at Views are personal