Think tanks, as they apparently represent, are the thinking sectors of our society. They are composed of scholars and experts tasked to conduct research and analysis in order to inform public policies that affect not only the government but also the private sector and the whole of society.
Most think tanks all over the world are non-government and independent entities doing various Track Two activities. But others come from the government sector performing semi-autonomous functions in order to deliver scientific, scholarly, and evidence-based studies needed for making sound decisions for the benefit of the humanity and the Earth where they live.
Compared with university-based scholars producing theoretical and academic papers, journal articles, books and other forms of publications aimed to accumulate knowledge through peer reviews, think tanks publish policy-oriented reports to improve the delivery of government services to the people through social evaluations. They release papers to guide not only the government bureaucracy but also the business community and the civil society. They even draft bills in order to improve legislations affecting the politics of our every day lives. They conduct Track Two diplomacy, also known as Think Tank diplomacy, to build confidence and promote cooperation among nations.
Think tanks are not new innovations. Their origins are traced to the antiquities when emperors and kings consult a team of thinkers to help them make decisions and build grandiose plans for their dominions. Ancient world philosophers like Confucius, Mencius, Sun Tzu, Plato, Aristotle, Kautilya and the like performed the role of think-tanks during their times.
In present times, think tanks have proliferated all over the world. According to the 2018 Global Go To Think Tank Index, there are around 1871 think tanks in the United States, 509 in India, 507 in China, 321 in the United Kingdom, 227 in Argentina, 218 in Germany, 215 in Russia, 203 in France, 128 in Japan, 114 in Italy, 103 in Brazil, 100 in Canada, and 93 in South Africa, among others. In Asia, there is the Network of East Asian Think Tanks (NEAT) composed of non-government international organizations in ASEAN + 3 (China, Japan and South Korea).
The ASEAN Secretariat even organized the First Consultative Meeting of Think Tanks in 2019 under the auspices of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Department. The Asian Development Bank also has its own ADB Asian Think Tanks Network (ATTN) formed in 2013 in order to conduct policy-oriented research on sustainable development and inclusive growth in the Asia Pacific. There is also the Network of ASEAN-China Think Tanks (NACT) organized in 2021 by the ASEAN Studies Center Universitas Gadjah Mada (ASC UGM) of Indonesia in collaboration with Chinese Foreign Affairs University (CFAU).
In the area of South China Sea Studies, think tanks in China and ASEAN formed in 2014 the China Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea (CSARC) in order promote functional cooperation, blue economy, preventive diplomacy, conflict avoidance, effective ocean governance, and good order at sea through peaceful management of territorial disputes and maritime jurisdictional conflicts. CSARC has become the leading think tank in China and Southeast Asia focusing on South China Sea Studies.
In other words, think tanks are now widely recognized as important players in policy-making and knowledge production. They champion not only innovative ideas but also practical advocacies to improve government bureaucracy, to strengthen the way of doing business, to empower the people and their communities, and to protect the environment. There is no doubt that their functions are comprehensive and therefore should be inclusive.
The holding of China-ASEAN Think Tank Cooperation Partnership spearheaded by the New Inclusive Asia reaffirms the enormous importance of think tanks in promoting cooperation, partnership and peace not only with China and ASEAN but also with the rest of the world. Specifically, the China-ASEAN Think Tank Cooperation Partnership can stress the vital role of think tanks in implementing China-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP).
At the 24th ASEAN-China Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC) meeting held at the ASEAN Secretariat on 17 May 2023, China and ASEAN leaders reaffirmed their commitments to advance the CSP. China and ASEAN established the CSP in 2021 to mark their achievements of 30 years of China-ASEAN Dialogue Relations.
The CSP covers political dialogue and practical cooperation in the areas of non-traditional security, trade and investment, food and agriculture, Information Communication Technology (ICG), cyber security, digital economy, tourism, education, public health, culture and information, media, environment, and sustainable development, among others. China and ASEAN even adopted the ASEAN-China Plan of Action 2021-2025 in order to decisively implement the CSP.
Think tanks in China and ASEAN can broaden their networks and level up their existing partnership in order to provide the needed knowledge, evidences, and empirical bases for the sound implementation of the CSP. Think tanks can start up a new type of partnership to complement already existing ones. Think tanks are indispensable enablers to ensure that China and ASEAN can achieve their goals in the CSP. All existing think tanks in China and ASEAN need to pursue closer collaboration in research, studies and advocacies to facilitate the implementation of the CSP to enable China and Southeast Asian nations to enjoy a community of shared future with the rest of the world.
Keynote Speech delivered on the launching of China-ASEAN Think Tanks Cooperation Partnership held at the Opening Ceremony of the 2023 China Greater Bay Area-ASEAN Economic Cooperation (Qianhai) Forum held in Shenzhen, China on 29 July 2023. The author is grateful to Mr. Koh King KEE , President of Center for New Inclusive Asia, for organizing the gathering of think tanks during the Qianhai Forum.