Asia Life | Society

Assessing Asia’s Think Tanks: Ideas and Impact

Insights from Erin Zimmerman.

Mercy A. Kuo
Assessing Asia’s Think Tanks: Ideas and Impact
Credit: Singapore Prime Minister’s Office

Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Erin Zimmerman associate research fellow at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) and author of Think Tanks and Non-Traditional Security: Governance Entrepreneurs in Asia (Palgrave Macmillan 2016)discusses the role of Asian think tanks in policymaking, as well as the similarities and differences to U.S. and European counterparts.

Explain the policy role and impact of Asia’s think tanks. 

The roles and policy impacts are as diverse as the countries themselves. In authoritarian countries think tanks have a very limited impact and often function more to legitimize government politics that to inform them. At best, these so-called “think tanks” are apologists for the government’s agenda. At worst, they can be tools for the government to surveil or interfere with political actors which may seek to criticize the government’s policies.

In more open countries think tanks play a variety of roles; they offer locations where new and innovative policy ideas can be introduced, discussed, and disseminated. They hold informal workshops and meetings where officials, policy experts, civil society, and academics can gather and discuss policy at all levels.

Think tanks function at all levels, and some focus solely on local politics while others are more concerned with a specific policy area or an individual nation. Though more rare, Asian think tanks are also beginning to function at the regional level and organize forums and dialogues encompassing participants and policy issues which span multiple countries.

How do Asian think tanks contribute to the development of civil society and political discourse in their respective countries and regions?

Asian think tanks fill a very unique niche in Asian politics. They offer a space where social norms are suspended so officials can speak candidly about issues considered too sensitive to be brought up in formal processes. These “informal” spaces function as a bridge between knowledge and power; a rare opportunity where new policy ideas can be entertained by those in power.

Concerning civil society, there is a disconnect between formal politics and the actions of civil society in Asia. On one hand, think tanks can offer an area of common ground where civil society leaders can interact with policymakers. On the other hand, think tanks have also been used to perform “lip service” to the concerns of civil society, meaning they are used to give the illusion that the government is receptive to complaints or suggestions but instead function as a way to defer political dissent.

Compare and contrast Asia’s think tanks with counterparts in the United States and Europe.

Historical Asian think tanks would not even qualify as “think tanks” in the American or European sense of the word. Early Asian think tanks had very little autonomy as they were established either at the behest of national government or with their explicit consent.

Over the last two decades this has changed, as Asian countries have democratized, developed more active philanthropic cultures, and opened up to outside influence. Now Asian think tanks, depending on their political environment and funding sources, can be largely independent due to the availability of more diverse funding sources and less governmental oversight. In practical terms, they are still smaller in numbers of staff and funding, but they are catching up.

With Asia’s growing global importance, what are three key trends in the quantity and quality of Asia’s think tanks?

Three important trends: higher numbers, growing interconnectedness, and more autonomy.

The number of Asian think tanks has grown exponentially since the mid-2000 but has not yet caught up with the U.S. or Europe. Asia only contains 25 percent of global think tanks, despite being home to half of the global population.

Due to a lack human capital and steady funding many Asian think tanks have networked with other think tanks to pool their resources and increase their influence. Networking and collaboration have been facilitated by globalization and easier access to digital resources.

Last, Asian think tanks continue to push for autonomy as more diverse funding sources (international funding, grants, businesses, wealthy individuals) become available. This will result in greater ideational freedom and an increased wealth of policy analysis. All three of these factors will likely contribute to increased quality.

Assess the scope and level of influence Asian think tanks have on the decision-making processes of their respective countries’ political elites and policy communities.    

Influence is difficult to quantify, but it is arguable that think tanks do have some level of influence on policy. This is country, and often administration, dependent. China’s recent initiative to expand the number of think tanks will likely not result in a noticeable growth of think tank influence in Chinese politics, just in more think tanks researching more ways to support existing governmental policies and structures.  However, in other countries think tanks can have a significant impact on policy. For instance, the Shangri-La Dialogue, the region’s most prestigious security dialogue, is hosted by a think tank which sets the agenda for the meeting and controls who can attend. Think tanks in Indonesia have a history of gaining and loosing political influence depending on the governing administration.

The true impact of think tanks likely lies somewhere in between these examples. Clearly, some individual think tanks have a great deal of influence, but these are rare. However, the trend of influence is increasing.