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Thinking allowed: As Policy Development In ASEAN Matures, Think Tanks Are Increasingly Influential

Source: China Daily Asia Weekly
Date: 20-26 September 2013

Thinking allowed: As Policy Development In ASEAN Matures, Think Tanks Are Increasingly Influential

by Ben Yue in Hong Kong

The concept of think tanks in the modern age was first conceived in the West during World War II, but it has only been in the past two decades that they have caught on in a significant way in Asia.

Today, the growth rate of regional think tanks is among the highest in the world.

Think tanks in the region are also making their own contributions to a united future in the community of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) through intellectual communications.

In last year's Global Go To Think Tanks Index, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, five think tanks from three ASEAN countries rank among the top 150. Of the ASEAN+3 countries, including China, Japan and South Korea, there are 16 think tanks in the top 150 list. Overall, there are 34 Asian think tanks in the list.

ASEAN's highest-ranking think tank, Indonesia's Centre for Strategic and International Studies, was ranked number 74 globally and fifth in Asia. The others in the top 150 list were three Singaporean think tanks - the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies - and Malaysia's Centre for Public Policy Studies.

The report, published annually, also shows that the overall number of ASEAN think tanks is increasing fast, from 50 in 2008 to 69 in 2012, up 38 percent during the past five years. The figure of the world's total think tanks grew about 20 percent, from 5,456 to 6,603, during the same period.

In the report's curtailed Asia list (which excludes China, Japan and South Korea), 19 ASEAN think tanks were ranked in the top 40, making up 47.5 percent of the list. Think tanks from the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Brunei were also represented.

Although the methodology of this report has been criticized by some academics, especially Asian scholars, it does give a general outline of the upward trend in the region, and the rise in demand for these "outside brains".

"In recent years, we have seen a major break-through of ASEAN think tanks in terms of numbers and quality," says Wei Ling, director of the East Asian Studies center at the China Foreign Affairs University. Wei is also China's coordinator at the Network of East Asian Think-tanks (NEAT), a regional community under the ASEAN+3 system.

Wei says during the past 10 years, frequent communication between think tanks in China, Japan, South Korea and ASEAN countries has pushed their development process, and also increased their influence in regional affairs.

Think tanks are beginning to have a stronger impact and contribution to diplomacy in the ASEAN region as governments give greater weight to their ideas and research. In a way, this shows that they are coming of age and are becoming more professional.

Founded in 2003, NEAT comprises 13 think tanks: one from each ASEAN member country plus China, Japan and South Korea. It provides advice at the ASEAN+3 Senior Officials' Meetings and therefore indirectly influences formulation of policy.

The close cooperation among think tanks from different countries means they can discuss and suggest solutions regarding sensitive matters before political leaders discuss directly. This can help dissipate tension between nations.

In fact, idea exchanges between think tanks are becoming more and more popular across the world. Track II diplomacy, and informal diplomacy practise among non-diplomats such as think tank members, is also being widely discussed in Asia.

"The communication need between think tanks was starting to boom when NEAT was first launched in 2003. All of our members are strong, and are led by famous scholars in the region. We have six working groups and regular meetings every year," Wei says.

According to her, NEAT's members are think tanks that already have close ties to their government, such as the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, ranked 5 on the top 40 curtailed Asia think tank list, and Malaysia's Institute of Strategic and International Studies, ranked 10 on the list.


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