In this new era of international politics marked by increasing rivalries of major powers amidst global security uncertainties, the role of think-tank is very essential to make sense of the challenging situation that we all find ourselves. Despite the current global turbulence caused by the current international and regional security situation arising primarily from the COVID-19 pandemic, Ukraine War and other flashpoints of conflicts in Asia like the Taiwan Straits, Korean Peninsula, East China Sea and the South China Sea, there is still a powerful light at the end of the dark tunnel with the advent of new diplomacy practiced by think tanks in the 21st century.
This new diplomacy is called Track II diplomacy powered not by governmental processes (Track I) but by non-governmental initiatives organized by independent groups, members of the academe and experts from various think tanks. Track II diplomacy champions a new type of international cooperation that loudly articulates informal voices and unofficial positions to grapple with the current and the future world security order and the evolving regional security architecture in Asia involving China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Track II diplomacy is an innovative practice that encourages unofficial and non-state processes in addressing official problems of the state. It is an informal and non-governmental process initiated by think tanks aiming to assist government officials in solving state problems or resolving inter-state and even intra-state conflicts.
Thus, Track II diplomacy may also be called us “think tank diplomacy” because of the vital role of think tanks in the process. Because of its informal nature, Track II diplomacy is also known as “backchannel diplomacy” as think tanks arguably use the backdoor as an innovative way to tackle state issues that are still sensitive or deemed premature to discuss officially.
Though it is unofficial, Track II or think tank diplomacy aids the official process in finding alternative and effective ways to solve state problems through non-governmental mechanisms. It also provides creative avenues to parties in conflict to converse with each other in an informal but informed manner despite the adversarial nature of their relationship. In other words, think tank diplomacy allow parties in conflicts to talk to one another in order to explore ways to improve their relationship and find measures to resolve their conflicts through non-governmental, unofficial but highly informed initiatives. (1)
Think tanks play a vital role in promoting the development of blue economy in the South China Sea (SCS). According to the World Bank, blue economy is the “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem.” Knowledge produced through think tank diplomacy is very useful in pursuing China-ASEAN strategic partnerships towards blue economy in the SCS.
To encourage robust engagement between China and ASEAN members in addressing SCS disputes, another Track II mechanism took the center stage in recent years in order to promote the peaceful cooperation in this highly contested maritime domain. Capitalizing on the official China-ASEAN dialogue partnership arrangement, this Track II mechanism led to the establishment of China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea (CSARC) in 2014. Prominent think tanks in China and Southeast Asia tackling SCS issues formed CSARC to promote Track II cooperation with a serious intention to inform and facilitate Track I cooperation between China and ASEAN countries.
CSARC had its embryonic stage on 14-15 September 2015 when the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and China’s National Institute of South China Sea Studies (NISCSS) assisted by Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) conducted the China-ASEAN Workshop on the SCS in Jakarta. With a theme, “Partnership for Regional Peace: Operationalizing ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership in Southeast Asia” this workshop pursued a Track II cooperation project in the SCS called “Finding A Resolution to the Issues on the South China Sea”.
Launched on 25 March 2016 at the sideline of the Boao Forum for Asia, CSARC aims to promote maritime cooperation in the SCS within the framework of the 2002 China-ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS (DOC). (2) Seven leading academic think tanks and research institutes of China and Southeast Asian countries became CSARC’s founding member organizations. These think tanks led by NISCSS are the following:
- Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), Cambodia
- Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Indonesia
- Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), Malaysia
- Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR), the Philippines
- S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
- Saranrom Institute of Foreign Affairs Foundation (SIFAF), Thailand
Since its establishment in 2016, CSARC has organized several activities promoting cooperation in the SCS through Track II mechanisms in the following fields:
- Traditional and non-traditional security
- Marine environmental protection
- Marine scientific research
- Safety of navigation and communication at sea
- Joint development and management of natural resources
- Crisis prevention and management
In March 2017, CSARC co-organized a sub-forum on the SCS at the sideline of the Boao Forum for Asia International Conference. Since then, CSARC has been co-organizing sub-forums on the SCS at the Boao Forum in order to discuss important issues of the SCS. These sub-forums have been providing platforms for officials, experts, scholars and think-tank personalities to face-off on recent developments in the SCS.
On 7-8 December 2017, CSARC held the First Annual CSARC Conference in Haikou coinciding with the International Symposium on “Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Common Development of the Greater South China Sea Region” co-organized with NISCSS. At least 70 participants attended the symposium with guest speakers coming from various government agencies as well as distinguished think tanks and research institutes of China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and the United Kingdom.
CSARC also co-organizes with NISCSS the program of China-ASEAN Academy on Ocean Law and Governance being held annually in Haikou. With NISCSS and the Australia-based National Center for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS) of the University of Wollongong, CSARC also conducts the annual Maritime Law Enforcement (MLE) Training of China-ASEAN Academy on Ocean Law and Governance launched in Haikou on 21 October 2019. These two main training programs not only aim to build knowledge and capacities of participants on issues surrounding the SCS. They also build deeper interpersonal relationships among participants, which are imperative for regional cooperation.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, CSARC organized on 5 to 6 November 2020 the Inaugural International Symposium on Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance held in Haikou, co-organized by NISCSS, Institute for China-America Studies (ICAS) and sponsored by the China Institute of the University of Alberta. It brought together over 500 participants from about 30 countries and regions, including experts, scholars, diplomats, former politicians and representatives from international organizations either physically present in Haikou or virtually present via the online conferencing system. (3)
CSARC also organized the China-ASEAN Think Tank Dialogue on the South China Sea on 26-27 August 2021 back-to-back with China-Philippines Think Tank Dialogue on Ocean Governance and Maritime Cooperation in the South China Sea held on 28 August 2021. (4) These two events also framed the discussions on the Second International Symposium on Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance held on 9-10 November 2021. The Third International Symposium on Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance was just held on 3-4 November 2022 with the persistent goal of harnessing the value of think-tanks led by NISCSS in pursuing various forms of cooperation the SCS.
All these activities generate new useful ideas and set the tones on how to manage current and emerging issues in the SCS. Most importantly, think-tank activities strengthen people-to-people contacts and network building among known experts, which are truly necessary to facilitate pragmatic and mutually-beneficial cooperation in what is generally viewed as an intractable conflict in the SCS.
Exemplary practices of think tanks like CSARC can facilitate the building of a China-ASEAN blue economic partnership in the new era. Think tanks can produce the needed knowledge to pursue cooperation in the following areas that are in fact identified in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the SCS, which is currently in its 20th year of commemoration, and mandated by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is on its 40th year of implementation:
- Marine environmental protection;
- Marine scientific research;
- Safety of navigation and communication at sea;
- Search and rescue operation; and
- Combating transnational crime, including but not limited to trafficking in illicit drugs, piracy and armed robbery at sea, and illegal traffic in arms as well as international terrorism
These areas are consistent with CSARC research fields and training activities mentioned previously.
In short, think tanks form the knowledge community in China and ASEAN as well as in the wider world. This knowledge community of think tanks can promote strategic partnership for the development of blue economy in the SCS through the awesome power of Track II diplomacy.
*Speech delivered at the China (Hainan) -ASEAN 2022 Think Tank Forum co-organized by the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS), Hainan Federation of Social Science Association (HFSSA) and Hainan Academy of Social Sciences (HASS) on December 20, 2022. Part of this speech was originally delivered at Third International Workshop on Maritime Cooperation and Policy Harmonization organized by the South China Institute, Xiamen University on 4 November 2022. Major portions of this speech is culled in Rommel C. Banlaoi, “Cooperation Through Tract II Mechanisms” in Zou Keyuan, ed, Routledge Handbook on the South China Sea (London and New York: Routledge, 2021) at https://www.routledge.com/Routledge-Handbook-of-the-South-China-Sea/Keyuan/p/book/9781032013237. This speech is also part of the author’s book project, The South China Sea: Conflict and Cooperation in Philippines-China Relations. The author is grateful to the Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Inc (FFCCCII) for supporting this project.
*About the author: Dr. Rommel C. Banlaoi is the President of the Philippine Society for Intelligence and Security Studies (PSISS), Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR) and member of the Board of Directors of the China Southeast Asian Research Center on the South China Sea (CSARC). He is also a member of the International Panel of Experts of the Maritime Awareness Project (MAP) of the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation. He was the President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS), member of the Management Board of the World Association for Chinese Studies (WACS), Adjunct Research Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS), and Fellow of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS). He was nominated as a Deputy National Security Adviser in July 2022 but he has returned to his usual academic work as an independent international studies expert and a national security analyst.
- D. S. Kaye, Talking to the Enemy: Track Two Diplomacy in the Middle East and South Asia (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2007).
- “China establishes joint research center on S. China Sea”, Global Times, 25 March 2016.
- CSARC, “Inaugural Symposium on Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance”, 5-6 November 2022 at http://www.csarc.org.cn/events/smcog/
- CSARC, “China-ASEAN Think Tank Dialogue on the South China Sea”, 26-27 August 2021 at http://www.csarc.org.cn/events/south-china-sea-themed-think-tank-dialouges-in-august/