AmericanOpinion

Advance column

Increasing links between Western research institutions and their counterparts in China are opening up new opportunities.

By Rory Medcalf

America's think tanks are looking east. Leading the way is the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which earlier this year opened its doors in China, in partnership with Beijing's highly regarded Tsinghua University.

Such an opening to China makes good sense. There is a great deal of scholarly debate on international affairs within China, much of which is little known about or not easily accessible to non-specialist observers in the West—partly because most of it is in Chinese but also because some of it is reflected more in the grey realm of conferences and conversations than in publications.

Plenty of creative ideas about foreign policy are doing the rounds in Beijing and its huge stable of government-funded institutes. But for unfortunate and understandable reasons, Chinese intellectuals often remain reluctant to be the first to put these thoughts into print in English for a global audience. The exceptions—articulate and relatively bold entrepreneurs of international ideas, like Wang Jisi, Shen Dingli and Zhu Feng—prove the rule. With direct links between Western and Chinese research institutions growing, it is to be hoped that comfort levels in forward-leaning publications and original policy recommendations will also rise.

Carnegie in China is headed by Paul Haenle, a former China director on the US National Security Council, and supported by a strong staff of Chinese and expatriate experts. It has chalked up some early achievements in the field of nuclear non-proliferation, with workshops and publications on how to engage China more deeply in the so-called 'arms control spring' heralded by President Barack Obama's speech in Prague in 2009.

Much of this work can be attributed to Lora Saalman, an exceptional young Chinese-speaking expert in nuclear issues who has studied under Li Bin, one of China's distinguished thinkers in the field. Other areas where the Carnegie–Tsinghua experiment could also make its mark are energy, climate change, trade and regional security challenges such as North Korea and Afghanistan.

Certainly Carnegie in its traditional home of Washington DC continues to do consistently good work on Afghanistan and the devilish policy problems the United States and the West face there. Gilles Dorronsoro is a prolific thought-leader in this space, and having analysed the military and political challenges for years is now looking unsentimentally and realistically at the hows and whys of negotiating 
with the Taliban. And for a comprehensive, deeply sobering survey of what Afghanistan's neighbours really think—and why a regional solution looks close to impossible—it would be hard to imagine a better or more timely product than this year's multi-authored volume edited by sometime policy practitioner Ashley Tellis. The hard-headed South Asia expert has probably done more than any other individual to help Washington's policy community understand a rising India.

The big ideas on Afghanistan, however, are hardly confined to the western side of the Atlantic. Britain's International Institute for Strategic Studies under the formidable John Chipman has made a big splash in the debate recently, arguing that current strategy has failed and that a new strategy of concentrating armed force in areas of Afghanistan other than the deeply troubled south holds much more chance of success. It is open to question whether this publication will lead the way to a major change in British and Western policy, or whether it in fact reflects what has for some time been the private thinking in Britain's official policy community.

This is the classic question: can think tanks fundamentally change official judgments, or is it more a case of reflecting or refining them? Either way, this development has certainly stolen headlines and put the IISS squarely on the map in the Afghanistan story.

Meanwhile if Afghanistan is one zone of trouble that think tanks 
are helping policymakers chart a way out of, there is another part of greater South Asia into which America's intellectual workshops are rapidly trying to navigate. Thanks in part to the pirates of Somalia, who have drawn the Chinese navy far from home, the Indian Ocean is flavour 
of the moment, and will be for years to come.

Robert Kaplan's 2009 article in the journal Foreign Affairs—for all its questionable generalisations—planted a flag, and he is further colonising the territory in his new book Monsoon. Across the United States, research and policy centres from the American Enterprise Institute to the Naval War College are devoting increased resources to the future of this region, and how US interests can be best safeguarded as China and India unfurl their sails there. In Australia, Singapore and elsewhere, the race to craft fresh visions of Indian Ocean security is on.

Of course, Indian institutes and scholars can rightly say this is nothing new, just as the idea of a war on terror in 2001 was hardly new to Indians. New Delhi's strategic community has long identified the importance of the Indian Ocean to global security, trade and the military balance. For every apocryphal quote from the US naval strategist Alfred Mahan about the Indian Ocean as the fulcrum of 21st-century history, there is a real one from India's long-neglected K M Pannikar, who wrote in the 1940s.

New Delhi's leading contemporary strategic thinker, C Raja Mohan, is now focusing his efforts on this subject, having already played pioneer twice with previous books on India–US alignment and India's post-1991 foreign policy transformation. His lecture in July on India, China and the Indian Ocean, hosted by the ambitious New Delhi naval think tank, the National Maritime Foundation, gave a clear sense of what Indian strategic pragmatists would like to see: an India that combines power with cooperation to set the agenda for external players' engagement in regional waters.

This does not mean that such an outcome is to be expected. This year is proving a reality check for those in the world of policy and ideas who had high expectations of what a rising India can contribute to global order. The Indian government seems increasingly preoccupied by worsening internal tensions, such as the Maoist insurgency, renewed strife in Kashmir, Hindu–Muslim mistrust and persistently massive income and education disparities despite economic growth. And the October 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi—meant to be a grand debut, a Beijing Olympics for Asia's democratic juggernaut—have proved to be a soft power embarrassment and a reminder of how far India has yet to go.

It will be fascinating to see how critically and constructively India's think-tank community unpacks and interprets all of this bad news. The prominent editor, commentator and former prime ministerial adviser Sanjaya Baru has this year provocatively warned that his country's think-tank scene remains deficient, due to "governmental bureaucratism and niggardly corporates". This is a huge shame, given India's vast intellectual talent. For India's sake, change is needed, and serious private philanthropy to support genuinely independent think tanks would be a great start. This is one clear lesson that the world's strongest democracy still holds for the largest.