AmericanOpinion

Tomes, tweets and think tanks

As China and India exert their influence, a growing range of expert opinions emerges.

By Rory Medcalf

Think tanks strive to dominate that great grey battle space where both journalistic skirmishers and encumbered academics are at a disadvantage: packaging serious ideas for busy policymakers and opinion-shapers. Yet there are notable efforts afoot by some think-tank experts who wish to claim wider ground.

Beyond the comfort zone of the four-page policy brief, some of the most fascinating work to emerge from foreign affairs think tanks in recent months has manifested in forms both grand and tiny, old and new—tomes and tweets.

The big strategic trends shaping the future of Indo-Pacific Asia have been impressively captured in three new books by a mix of established thought-leaders and rising stars, and here special mention must go to the Brookings Institution and the US Naval War College.

Published, serendipitously, in the wake of last year's grave downturn in Sino-Japanese diplomacy, The Perils of Proximity: China-Japan Security Relations, by Brookings scholar Richard C. Bush blends an appreciation of history with an awareness of present and future security challenges. In particular, it offers a practical template for reducing mistrust and the risks of war between the two great powers of North Asia.

The value and timeliness of this volume cannot be overstated. Events in 2010—including provocative Chinese naval manoeuvres, Japan's arrest of a Chinese fishing captain and China's diplomatic escalation of the crisis—bode poorly for regional stability. Japanese suspicion of China has deepened, potentially reversing public discomfort with the US alliance and Japan's own military reawakening. Yet, as I can attest from detailed discussions with policy thinkers in both capitals, nobody on either side seems to have a plan for incrementally escaping this security dilemma.

With decades of policy and regional experience, Bush is well-placed to put some ideas into that gap, and his road map for a gradual confidence-building regime, leading potentially to a bilateral incidents-at-sea agreement, is well worth considering. The appetite for progress on both sides may be small, but doing nothing may be the most dangerous option.

Less comforting are the conclusions of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to US Maritime Strategy. In this deceptively short book, Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes of the US Naval War College have produced a bold and detailed analysis of the rise of the Chinese navy and its plausible future in challenging and thwarting US influence.

Mind you, their work is arguably mistitled—for their arguments suggest that Beijing's primary maritime security focus will sooner or later become the Indian Ocean, with its arteries of energy supply and other commerce.

A striking quality of the authors' work is the unorthodox way they draw upon an eclectic range of Chinese-language primary sources: open-source publications, from scholarly articles to speeches, interviews, comments and popular, including online, journalism. They deploy these materials to make the case that Beijing's naval ambitions are more far-reaching in scale and distance than many China experts believe. In particular, the authors cast China's maritime strategy largely in terms of the theories of the long-dead American sea power thinker Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose ideas appear alive and well in Beijing and, incidentally, New Delhi.

That brings us to another important Brookings publication, Arming without Aiming: India's Military Modernisation, by Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta. Cohen is of course the elder statesman of South Asian security studies, and it is refreshing to see him teaming with a younger, Indian voice to produce this book that needed to be written: a frank appraisal of the gap between India's defence policy vision and the continuing messy reality of its implementation.

This does not quite puncture the balloon of the India boosters in Washington and elsewhere: after all, even with all its speed bumps and flaws, the economically-driven growth of Indian power will still be enough to change global strategic balances in the long run. And many of the key arguments—India's continental security distractions and woeful procurement system—have been made equally well in previous publications.

But Cohen and Dasgupta have smartly distilled almost everything that has gone before, to produce a highly readable, expert and balanced primer on the strange rise of Indian military power. This should be essential reading for other nations' policymakers before they leap into closer defence engagement with India. (For the record, I still think that is a path worth taking—but with both eyes open.)

Together, these three books by some leading think-tank scholars provide a clearer perspective on Indo-Pacific Asia's security future than the vast bulk of the short-term, journalistic commentary currently flooding the regional security scene.

Also worth a trawl, though in my view less analytically rigorous, is the latest opus from the prolific Robert Kaplan: Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the future of American Power. Among the many feathers in his tribal headdress, Kaplan is affiliated with the Centre for a New American Security, but at heart he remains more uber-journalist and colour-hungry contemporary historian than considered think-tank wonk. The beauty of Monsoon is the way that it weaves past, present and future to put the Indian Ocean back on the global strategic map. One of its weaknesses is that it does so unevenly, and without providing a consistent account of how China is likely to exercise power in this new theatre—or how the rest of us can or should respond, beyond a generally enhanced attention to this long-neglected zone.

Also uneven, though still of some merit, is one of the latest offerings in the Adelphi Books series from the International Institute for Strategic Studies. In Trapped Giant: China's Military Rise, Jonathan Holslag makes a valiant stab at trying to see and explain strategic Asia through China's eyes. This is enormously timely and a case worth making, especially in light of the weird spate of confrontations on China's maritime periphery in 2010. But some aspects of the analysis feel rushed and incomplete. Not that the author has anything to prove—he has published widely on Asian security, and is a star in his native Belgium—but one hopes that Trapped Giant is not his last word on the subject.

Finally, from a large and venerable format to the tiniest chariot of ideas: Twitter is finally nesting in the think-tank world. This trend has been relatively slow to take off: by March 2011, some of the world's best policy institutes still had Twitter followings in the dismal hundreds. One, Singapore's otherwise excellent Rajaratnam School of International Studies is clearly unconvinced about this brave new world of viral opinion: when I last checked, its Twitter following was a mere 37.

But elsewhere, notably in the United States, South Korea, India and Australia, institutes and some of their more entrepreneurial voices are steadily picking up followings in the thousands. This can be a mixed blessing, but with social media exerting such an instant impact on the real world, think tanks would be foolish to hold back. I will be looking more closely at how think tanks can make the most of social media in a future column.