China’s Think-Tank Diplomacy in Southeast Asia: Idea Exchange or Echo Chamber?
China’s intensified efforts to engage with regional think-tanks have not produced the results it has hoped for, mainly because Beijing seems to care more about imposing its own views than a true meeting of the minds.
On 15 July 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on Chinese academics and think-tankers to establish “disciplinary, academic, and discourse systems” on Chinese civilisation and history so that the world could better understand China. This “three great systems” statement followed Xi’s directive to rationalise China’s “internal and external propaganda system” to “improve…the appeal of Chinese culture, the affinity of Chinese image, the persuasive power of Chinese discourse, and the guiding force of international public opinion”. As part of this campaign to shift global discourse, Beijing has recently ramped up efforts to build “new think tanks with Chinese characteristics” and to enhance its think-tank diplomacy abroad.
Given Southeast Asia’s importance in Beijing’s public diplomacy efforts, how has China sought to influence regional think-tanks to serve its interests?
Overall, China regards think-tank outreach as a crucial channel to shape international public opinion and to defend and promote Chinese narratives on global and regional affairs, supplementing state-to-state diplomacy. True to the statist nature of the Chinese system, China’s think-tank diplomacy is a top-down, concerted undertaking that involves not only Chinese think-tanks and universities but also central and local government agencies, the state media, state-owned enterprises, and Chinese embassies. These players have been diversifying their engagement conduits vis-à-vis regional think-tanks. Beyond establishing networks and partnerships, China is sponsoring and organising events, conducting joint research projects, and co-publishing research.
Since President Xi assumed office in 2012, China has initiated multiple think-tank networks (see Table 1) to promote its foreign policy initiatives, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Community with Shared Future, Lancang-Mekong Cooperation and the Hainan Free Trade Port. China has also organised high-level conferences to push positive narratives about its diplomatic agenda in Southeast Asia. During a China-hosted RCEP Media & Think-Tank Forum in May 2022, Chinese experts framed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership as “a successful example of open regionalism” while belittling the US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) as a western ploy to counter China’s rising influence. Branding RCEP as a symbol of openness and inclusiveness reveals Beijing’s intention to project “a positive discourse about China’s support for free trade and multilateralism”.
Additionally, China has intensified its direct outreach to individual think-tanks, particularly those in Cambodia, Indonesia, and Malaysia, to reinforce its official narratives and influence local public opinion.
Huaneng Group, China’s leading state-owned energy company, sponsored a recent survey on young Cambodians’ perceptions of China. Jointly conducted by the Centre for Cambodian Studies (Beijing Foreign Studies University) and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Research Center (Royal University of Phnom Penh), this survey revealed that respondents generally had positive views of Chinese investments in Cambodia. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Research Center had published a book, The Belt and Road Initiative: Implications for Cambodia’s Development in 2019. At the book launching ceremony, the Chinese embassy’s Political Counsellor Zuo Wenxing hoped that the book would become a “new window” for Cambodians to understand the BRI better. Such publicity stunts are aimed at promoting positive opinions about China’s economic agenda and national image in the respective host countries.
In Indonesia, the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) is China’s preferred partner for think-tank diplomacy. The FPCI has hosted a range of China-related events in partnership with the Chinese embassy in Jakarta, like the China Forum (2020) and Halo China! Video Competition (2021). China’s Mission to ASEAN sponsored the FPCI’s upcoming Youth Voice for ASEAN-China Cooperation: Writing Competition & Policy Lab, for university students from ASEAN countries. Winners participate in a two-day “policy lab”, where they produce a joint policy memo, engage with policymakers, and receive recommendations to pursue higher education in China via the ASEAN-China Young Leaders Scholarship. The FPCI has conducted the ASEAN-China Survey annually since 2020, which shows respondents’ relatively positive perceptions of China’s engagement in Southeast Asia. At the launching ceremony for the 2021 survey, Chinese Ambassador to ASEAN Deng Xijun promoted China’s Global Development Initiative but also derided US alliances and ‘mini-lateral’ coalitions in the Indo-Pacific, proclaiming that “bullying is not in the blood of our Chinese nation and will never be”.
China’s approach to think-tank diplomacy has primarily focused on promoting its self-selected narratives rather than facilitating frank exchanges with its partners.
In Malaysia, the Centre for New Inclusive Asia (CNIA), self-labelled “the independent voice of inclusive Asia”, has established exclusive strategic partnerships with Chinese think-tanks. CNIA’s publications regularly appear on Chinese state media. As a founding member of the International Academic Network for a Community with Shared Future, CNIA co-organised a “China and the World: Changing Reality and Shared Future” conference in July 2020. In the Online Dialogue of Global Think Tanks from 20 Countries convened by China’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies in May 2022, CNIA’s Chairman Ong Tee Keat voiced support for President Xi’s Global Security Initiative (GSI). China’s close engagement with CNIA is a vivid example of how Beijing uses the voices of regional think-tankers to amplify its narratives on the international stage.
For all its efforts and investments, however, China’s think-tank diplomacy still faces challenges. As shown in the 2022 State of Southeast Asia annual survey, China remains the least trusted major power of Southeast Asia’s foreign policy elites, which shows how Beijing’s efforts to bolster China’s image as an unwavering supporter of multilateralism and free trade have not gained much currency among decision-makers. Moreover, China’s approach to think-tank diplomacy has primarily focused on promoting its self-selected narratives rather than facilitating frank exchanges with its partners. This superficial public relations exercise hampers true engagement with the region’s think-tanks, which can provide different perspectives and inspire transformative ideas to meet the needs and concerns of all parties. Winning the hearts and minds of Southeast Asians requires far more than imposing an overly positive image of China and a one-sided ‘exchange’. Whether Beijing truly respects Southeast Asian voices and is open-minded enough to receive critical views and different perspectives remains to be seen.
Wang Zheng was a Wang Gungwu Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. He is currently a PhD Candidate at the University at Albany, SUNY.