The Chinese diplomacy of think-tanks in Southeast Asia: exchange of ideas or echo chamber?
China’s intensified efforts to engage with regional think tanks have not yielded the results it was hoping for, mainly because Beijing seems more concerned with imposing its own views than a genuine meeting of minds. .
On July 15, 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on Chinese scholars and think tanks to establish “disciplinary, scholarly, and discourse systems” on Chinese civilization and history so that the world can better understand China. This “three major systems” statement followed Xi’s directive to streamline China’s “internal and external propaganda system” to “enhance…the appeal of Chinese culture, the affinity of Chinese image , the persuasive power of Chinese discourse and the driving force of international public opinion”. As part of this campaign to change the global discourse, Beijing has recently stepped up efforts to create “new think tanks with Chinese characteristics” and to strengthen its overseas think tank diplomacy.
Given the prominence of Southeast Asia in Beijing’s public diplomacy efforts, how has China sought to influence regional think tanks to serve its interests?
Overall, China sees think tank outreach as a crucial channel for shaping international public opinion and for defending and promoting Chinese narratives on global and regional affairs, complementing state-to-state diplomacy. . True to the state-like nature of the Chinese system, China’s think tank diplomacy is a top-down and concerted endeavor that involves not only China’s think tanks and universities, but also central and local government agencies, state media, state-owned enterprises, and Chinese embassies. These actors have diversified their channels of engagement with regional think tanks. Beyond establishing networks and partnerships, China sponsors and organizes events, conducts joint research projects and co-publishes research.
Since President Xi took office in 2012, China has launched several think tank networks (see Table 1) to promote its foreign policy initiatives, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). , the Community with a Shared Future, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation and the Hainan Free Trade Port. China has also held high-level conferences to promote positive narratives about its diplomatic program in Southeast Asia. At an RCEP Media & Think-Tank Forum held in China in May 2022, Chinese experts touted the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership as “a successful example of open regionalism” while downplaying the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) led by the United States as a Western agreement. ploy to counter China’s growing influence. Making RCEP a symbol of openness and inclusion reveals Beijing’s intention to project “a positive discourse on China’s support for free trade and multilateralism.”
Moreover, China has stepped up its direct contact with individual think tanks, particularly those in Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia, to bolster its official narratives and influence local public opinion.
Huaneng Group, China’s leading state-owned energy company, sponsored a recent survey of young Cambodians’ perceptions of China. Jointly conducted by the Center for Cambodian Studies (Beijing Foreign Studies University) and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Research Center (Royal University of Phnom Penh), the survey found that respondents generally had a positive view of Chinese investments in Cambodia. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Research Center has published a book, The Belt and Road Initiative: Implications for Cambodia’s Development in 2019. At the book’s launch ceremony, Chinese Embassy Political Counselor Zuo Wenxing hoped the book would become a “new window” for Cambodians to better understand the BRI. Such publicity stunts aim to promote positive views on China’s economic agenda and national image in the respective host countries.
In Indonesia, the Indonesian Foreign Policy Community (FPCI) is China’s preferred partner for think tank diplomacy. The FPCI has organized a series of China-related events in partnership with the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta, such as the China Forum (2020) and Halo China! Video contest (2021). The China Mission to ASEAN sponsored the upcoming FPCI writing competition and policy lab, Youth Voices for ASEAN-China Cooperation, for university students from ASEAN countries. Winners participate in a two-day “policy lab,” where they produce a joint policy brief, engage with policymakers, and receive recommendations for pursuing higher education in China through the ASEAN-China Young Leaders Fellowship. The FPCI has conducted the ASEAN-China survey every year since 2020, which shows respondents’ relatively positive perceptions of China’s engagement in Southeast Asia. At the launch ceremony for the 2021 survey, Chinese Ambassador to ASEAN Deng Xijun promoted China’s Global Development Initiative, but also derided US alliances and “mini” coalitions. -sides” in the Indo-Pacific, proclaiming that “bullying is not in the blood of our Chinese nation and never will be”.
China’s approach to think tank diplomacy has focused primarily on promoting its own narratives rather than facilitating candid exchanges with its partners.
In Malaysia, the Center for New Inclusive Asia (CNIA), the self-proclaimed “Independent Voice of Inclusive Asia”, has forged exclusive strategic partnerships with Chinese think tanks. CNIA publications appear regularly in Chinese state media. As a founding member of the International Academic Network for a Community with a Shared Future, CNIA co-organized a conference “China and the World: Changing Reality and Shared Future” in July 2020. As part of the online dialogue of global think tanks from 20 countries convened by China’s Chongyang Institute of Financial Studies in May 2022, CNIA Chairman Ong Tee Keat voiced support for President Xi’s Global Security Initiative (GSI) . China’s close engagement with CNIA is a stark example of how Beijing is using the voices of regional think tanks to amplify its narratives on the international stage.
However, despite all its efforts and investments, China’s think tank diplomacy still faces challenges. As the 2022 State of Southeast Asia Annual Survey shows, China remains the least trusted major power among Southeast Asian foreign policy elites, which shows how Beijing’s efforts to bolster China’s image as a steadfast proponent of multilateralism and free trade have not gained much traction among policymakers. Moreover, China’s approach to think tank diplomacy has focused primarily on promoting its own narratives rather than facilitating candid exchanges with its partners. This superficial public relations exercise hinders meaningful engagement with think tanks in the region, which can offer different perspectives and inspire transformative ideas to address the needs and concerns of all parties. Winning the hearts and minds of Southeast Asians requires more than imposing an overly positive image of China and a one-sided “swap”. Whether Beijing truly respects the voices of Southeast Asia and is open-minded enough to receive critical opinions and different perspectives remains to be seen.