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Bao Chuanjian
Many China experts, both at home and abroad, agree at one level or another, that today there are three pillars which hold China-US relations – economic and trade relations, security cooperation, and people-to-people exchanges. As clouds loom over the global economy, economic and trade relations, long regarded as the ballast for China-US relations, are facing a significant stress test.
Since the trade friction began, thinkers on both sides have offered advice on how to manage this mercurial relationship. The optics are relevant for think tanks which have become driving forces on shaping the China-US narrative.
US think tanks hold a dominant position in numbers and international influence. In development for over a century, they have developed into an integral part of the US governance system. From proposing innovative concepts to promoting strategies, these policy research institutes have consistently embedded themselves in the public discourse and socio-cultural mentality.
The interaction and transfer of talent between think tanks and government departments, known as a “revolving door” mechanism, has facilitated their influence, thanks to their direct access to policymakers, which is uncommon in other nations.
In China, the “Decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on Some Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening the Reform” adopted at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee explicitly ordered to strengthen efforts on the building of new types of think tanks with Chinese characteristics. This was the first time the term “think tank” appeared in a CPC Central Committee document.
In 2015, the General Office of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council issued the “Opinions on Strengthening the Construction of New Types of Think Tanks with Chinese Characteristic,” clarifying that the think tanks with Chinese characteristics would offer support for the scientific and democratic decision-making aspects of the Party and government, contribute to the modernization of national governance, and strengthen soft power. The 19th CPC National Congress report reaffirmed China would strengthen the development of new think tanks with Chinese characteristics. Many resources have been earmarked for policy research, as China’s think tanks have ushered in a golden age of development.
US think tanks have been effective in shaping public discourse. In 2017, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Asia Society in New York convened for a Working Group on the Chinese Influence Activities in the United States. Over 30 China watchers, including 23 US experts and 10 international pundits participated in the working group discussions. The Hoover Institution published the results a few weeks ago, claiming a new emphasis on “constructive vigilance” would be the best way to “create a fairer and more reciprocal relationship that will be the best guarantor of healthier ties between the United States and China.”
A number of arguments and ideas disproportionally emphasized confrontation rather than cooperation, such as the Thucydides’ Trap, new Cold War, sharp power, disengagement, and the latest in constructive vigilance, continue their emergence in the area of security cooperation and people-to-people exchanges. Policy changes advocated by those who play hardball for political gains have already cast a shadow over scholarly communication from both sides of the Pacific.
Hopefully, constructive vigilance will not be a dangerous sign for China-US dialogue.
As illustrated, concepts and catchphrases within the China-US narrative have returned among think tanks from both countries, or they are known publicly as a result of promotional efforts from the institutions.
Given the fierce competition in the global marketplace of ideas, it is no daring prophecy to say that the encounters between Chinese and Western discourse, including concepts, narratives, and means of communication will continue in the future, and with greater intensity. Under such circumstances, think tank diplomacy will have a more significant role between China and the US.
Think tank diplomacy will help both sides increase consensus and reduce the risks of strategic miscalculations. Another important task facing modern Chinese think tank scholars is to improve methods on how to disseminate Chinese reports and discourse to their foreign counterparts, while also reaching a bigger audience through them.
In-depth communication with think tank scholars who have walked out of the “revolving doors” has played an irreplaceable role in deepening understanding and seeking common ground between China-US policy circles.
From the vantage point of a global knowledge network, intellectuals from both sides should guard against the disengagement narrative or Cold War rhetoric to achieve what I call “resilient engagement.” What I mean by this is that Chinese and US cultural and scholarly exchanges can return to the normal track in the face of adversity. Chinese and American universities think tanks and civil societies should play an enabling and empowering role in promoting the stable development of China-US relations.

Bao Chuanjian is an assistant professor at the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau, China