China is trying, and mostly failing, to build U.S. support for its claims in the South China Sea.
Despite its advocacy for Beijing’s controversial and important position in the disputed South China Sea, the Institute for China-American Studies (ICAS) — the only Chinese think tank based in Washington D.C. — has been unable to rise from obscurity. Google their initials and they come up on the third page, behind the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, the International Council of Air Shows, and the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, a tribe in Alaska. It has all of 46 Twitter followers.
While U.S. scholars respect some of executive director Hong Nong’s work on China’s claims in the disputed South China Sea — the focus of the think tank’s five-person staff — ICAS is almost entirely unknown outside a narrow band of China watchers in the U.S. think tank community. Even Patrick Ho, who runs the China Energy Fund, one of the only other Mainland Chinese think tanks active in the United States — the exact number is unknown, but estimates range from two to roughly a dozen — said he has never heard of ICAS. “I don’t know if they [even] have a reputation yet,” said the South China Sea scholar Bonnie Glaser. “They have been pretty low-profile.”
On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an influential international court in the Hague, will announce its ruling on a controversial case between the Philippines and China over the legality of Beijing’s claims of much of the disputed South China Sea. Beijing has refused to acknowledge the court’s jurisdiction over this case. Instead, over the last year, it has been waging a public relations battle in Washington, trying to convince policymakers that its territorial claims are valid.
Many in Beijing feel that either the United States fundamentally misunderstands China’s policies, or that it’s biased against China. Either way, Beijing believes educating the United States about China will improve the perception of the Middle Kingdom in the United States. And that, so the thinking goes, will allow Beijing greater international latitude. ICAS, which opened in April 2015 with a high-profile conference featuring Henry Kissinger in a pre-recorded, is part of this strategy. “My mission,” Hong said, “is to send a clear message” about China’s claims and policies in the South China Sea.
And yet, Beijing has been mostly unsuccessful in building international support for its South China Sea claims. One reason is the perceived weakness of its legal case. Most experts, at least outside of China, seem to agree that the Permanent Court of Arbitration will rule in the Philippines favor. “China’s claim that it can legally ignore the pending arbitral award is not only wrong, it is legally insupportable,” Julian Ku, a professor of constitutional law at Hosftra University, wrote on the blog Lawfare. The other reason is Beijing’s misunderstanding of how U.S. public opinions and institutions work. Just as Beijing disparages Washington’s ignorance of China, the various parts of the Chinese system can be surprisingly daft in their understanding of U.S. institutions and the media ecosystem that surrounds them.
And that is the context in which ICAS — an organization whose main reason of existence is to attract attention, influence policymakers, and join the D.C. conversation — has had so little impact. Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), doesn’t think it’s because they are spies — a plausible explanation for a Chinese organization that gathers and disseminates information. “Obviously people will suspect that they’re playing some intelligence role. But they’re not very aggressive,” she said. Rather, most of those interviewed for this story — roughly a dozen academics, think tank staff, and China watchers, the kind of people who traffic in acronyms and appreciate the intricacies of relevancy in Washington — have concluded that the problem is ineffectiveness.
ICAS, in other words, is not doing what a think tank should do: convening major events with respected scholars and politicians, publishing influential research, and challenging and improving government policy. Scholars say that their papers rarely get circulated, and they have not held a major event since their opening conference. “I wouldn’t say it’s a sophisticated operation at this stage,” said a member of the D.C. China policy community, who asked to speak anonymously because she wasn’t authorized to speak to the media. Jim McGann, the founder of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, which publishes an influential ranking of think tanks around the world, said ICAS seems “underfunded and not very well focused.” Even those more sympathetic to the idea of ICAS have been underwhelmed by its performance. “I’ve been a little surprised that it’s flown under the radar the way it has,” said one American South China Sea expert at a D.C. think tank, who asked to speak anonymously in order to not criticize ICAS on the record. “I figured this would be an enterprise we engage with, or fairly controversial; but it hasn’t moved the needle hard in either direction.”
The importance of think tanks in D.C.’s intellectual life is a relatively recent phenomenon, though the term has been around much longer: it dates to the late 19th century, where it was a “colloquial and often vaguely condescending expression for a person’s head or brain,” according to the 2012 book Think Tanks in America by the scholar Thomas Medvetz. “Playful references to ‘think tanks’ can be found in novels, advertisements, and newspaper articles from the 1880s until about the 1960s,” wrote Medvetz, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. But over the last four or five decades, as research institutions like Brookings, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and RAND Corporation grew in importance, they became the “primary instruments for linking political and intellectual practice in American life,” according to Medvetz — in other words, the bridge between thinking about policies and implementing them.
For China, whose history stretches back 5,000 years, the concept is, unsurprisingly, older: The idea of research institutions advising the ruler of China stretches back at least to the Hanlin Yuan, established in the 8th century. Literally meaning “Brushwood Academy,” it “fulfilled the policy research and consultation function for Chinese emperors,” the scholar Zhu Xufeng wrote in the 2013 book The Rise of Think Tanks in China. Since 1949, when Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China, think tanks have evolved from Soviet-style research institutions — bureaucratic behemoths, enmeshed within the state and the party — to a mixture of public and semi-private think tanks today.
The main difference between Chinese and U.S. think tanks is the issue of independence: while Chinese think tanks prize a close connection to the government, they are thus saddled with the intellectual restraint of being unable to speak truth to power. According to a November 2014 article in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) Newspaper, a publication affiliated with China’s best-known think tank, it is “advisable” for think tanks in China “to maintain strong linkages with the government.” On ICAS’s website, and in person, Hong describes her think tank as independent. And yet, that seems unlikely. A read through the publications on its website, which have titles like “The South China Sea: China Won’t Accept Cursory Judgment of Its Inherent Rights;” “Beijing Has Case for Historic Rights at Sea;” and “The US-ASEAN Honeymoon Shouldn’t Come at China’s Expense” shows that ICAS seems to be heeding CASS’ advice.
Hong has to navigate a thicket of thorny issues: how to praise freedom of expression while remaining loyal to a sensitive Beijing, and how to keep intellectual independence while maintaining access to China’s cautious decision-makers. During an interview, Hong described the practice of deliberately manipulating or withholding information to avoid offending Beijing. When this writer suggested that the English word for what she described was self-censorship, Hong responded brightly, “Oh, self-censorship, that’s a new word.” When asked about writing on sensitive areas — like the level of control Xi has over the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s military the People’s Liberation Army — Hong said her think tank would eschew it, because it’s not “safe.”
Hong’s words points both to the limitations and potential of ICAS. Hong’s relative openness — for example, her willingness to discuss self-censorship on the record, rare among Chinese academics — shines some promise into the operation. “She can be critical of China, and can come up with her own ideas,” Glaser said. “She’s not very dogmatic, or pushy, like some [Chinese scholars] can be.” But her hands are, intellectually and financially, tied.
ICAS sits under the lushly funded government research organization, the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS), in the island province of Hainan. But for some reason, that largesse has not trickled down to ICAS. During a March interview, Hong estimated that ICAS’s budget is just $800,000 a year, a number several other think tankers privately said was very low. “Sometimes conferences can be very expensive,” Hong complained.
And yet, when it comes to the roiling South China Sea debate, ICAS could yet find some success in that space between restricted and independent thought. “Having someone who just parrots what they read in the [popular Chinese tabloid] The Global Times is not going to be credible in an ideas marketplace like Washington,” said Gordon Houlden, the director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta and one of the think tank’s five advisory board members. Hong is “going to put forward Chinese arguments and positions,” Houlden said, but she can do so in a more subtle way. Isaac Kardon, a visiting scholar at NYU Law’s US-Asia Law Institute and an expert on South China Sea issues, concurs. “Among her colleagues, I think Hong has one of the more subtle and reasonable approaches to talking about Chinese policy to foreign audiences,” he said.
For this particular dispute, however, Hong is running out of time. In the lead up to July 12, an article by ICAS board member Wu Shicun, who runs the think tank’s parent organization, appeared on ICAS’s website. He writes of a “plot” against China, arguing that the United States and its allies aim to “expel China from the South China Sea for good.” There are arguments that would affect the way U.S. policymakers think about the South China Sea. This isn’t one of them.
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