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‘Catching Up’ or Reinvention?: Redefining Think Tanks in the 21st Century

Think tanks emerged around 100 years ago as a product of international liberalism with its desire to foster cooperation and mutual dialogue in an increasingly globalizing world. They have now become a distinct feature of our contemporary international community. As important civil society actors connecting academia, government, and the public, their strength has long been thought to lie primarily in their ability to provide an independent voice vis-à-vis government parties and lobbyists. But does institutional independence necessarily have to be part of the definition of think tanks? Institutional independence, which implies the private funding rather than public funding of a think tank, has become an accepted notion to measure the effectiveness and credibility of think tanks. But discerning correlation (that is, when the interest of the donor and a think tank overlap) and causation (when third-party actors intentionally try to influence the policy reports of a think tank) is often difficult to discern (Drezner, 2016). Institutional independence may also be used to exclude certain institutions from being defined as think tanks. This is what Erin Zimmermann, associate research fellow of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA), seems to think when he states that historically, think tanks in Asia do not qualify as such and have only recently been “catching up,” as their funding sources have become more diverse and governmental oversight less stringent (Zimmermann in Kuo, 2020). ‘Catching up’ here, of course, implies the template of Western-style think tanks as a reference point. With that in mind, it is important to consider the history of think tanks in the West.

The first ever think tank is thought to be the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies of the British Empire in 1831. Indeed, the history of think tanks has an imperial overtone, as they were seen as network centres to strengthen ties between elites in different parts of the British Empire (Roberts, 2015, p. 539). When several new think tanks were established in Europe with an institutional focus on international affairs after the Second World War, most of them were overwhelmingly reliant on public funding and government support; examples include the German Council on Foreign Relations (GDAP) in 1955 and the Institut Francais de Relations Internationales (IFRI) in 1979 (Roberts, 2015, p. 546).

While America and Europe still dominate the scene for think tanks, Asia has seen a dramatic increase in the number of these institutions. The Global Go To Think Tank Index produced annually by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) counted 653 think tanks in Asia in 2008, but more than 3000 in its latest report in 2020 (TTCSP, 2008 & 2020)! TTCSP also promotes a more flexible definition of think tanks from a spectrum of being wholly independent to having affiliation to a polity party, university or to the government. A less narrow conceptualization of think tanks allows us to correct the assumption that think tanks can only prosper in democracies.

In China, the promotion of new types of think tanks by Xi Jinping has resulted in China now having taken second place after the United States when it comes to sheer number of think tanks. These institutions contribute significantly to China’s soft power: Hu Angan, head of the Institute for Contemporary China Studies at Tsinghua University, notes that in China “the interests of the government and the public are not considered separate … [and] therefore the conceptual problem of think tanks serving the government rather than civil society does not arise” (Hu in Hayward, 2018, p. 35). Although around 90% of think tanks in China are affiliated with Party committees (Wei, 2015), they do contribute to offering a plurality of policy choices. As China moves from its national policy of ‘keeping-a low profile’ since the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping until the early 2000s, it now endeavours to not only be a norm-taker, but also a norm-maker. Think tanks in China will only gain more importance, as China tries to reform domestic economic and legal structures to become compatible with the requirements of the global capital system (Hayward, 2018, p. 46) and to assert its weight in the international community.

These developments are not limited to China. In Southeast Asia, we see a similar proliferation of think tanks that make use of established regional organizations - in particular ASEAN and APEC - to network in the region. The most predominant think tank network is the ASEAN Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ASEAN ISIS), created in 1981. These think tanks are strongly involved in Track II diplomacy, which contribute to confidence-building measures in an environment that lacks regional institutions. Although Asian think tanks have been criticised for their close relationship to governments, the ASEAN ISIS has nevertheless promoted endeavors like the establishment of the ASEAN People’s Assembly, active in the 2000s, and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR). These two platforms facilitate the involvement of civil society in regional governance (Zimmerman, 2016, p.178).

As we enter the post-COVID era, we have learnt once again that what happens in one part of the world will affect us all globally. Not only have several Western think tanks branched out to other parts of the world and set up new hubs such as Carnegie Endowment with new offices in Beijing since 2010 and in New Delhi since 2016, but we have now witnessed the rise of non-Western think tanks. These regional think tanks benefit from tapping into local knowledge-sources, which means they have a better understanding of the political conditions on the ground and are able to translate certain policy ideas to the local context. It is more important than ever to encourage transnational exchanges and to foster the coexistence of multiple viewpoints. Think tanks exist because they promote “evidence-based action” (Medhora in de Boer, 2015, p. 526) and this is the foundational definition we should use to assess think tanks in the 21st century.



De Boer, J. (2015) Think tanks exist to Influence: A Conversation with Rohinton Medhora. International Journal 70 (4), 526-534. DOI: 10.1177/0020702015591762

Drezner. (2016, August 10). What do we know about the independence of think tank research that we didn’t a week ago? The Washington Post.

Hayward, J. (2018). The Rise of China’s New-Type Think Tanks and the Internationalization of the State. Pacific Affairs 91(1), 27-47. DOI:10.5509/201891127

Kuo, A.M. (2020, February 25). Assessing Asia’s Think Tanks: Ideas and Impact - Insights from Erin Zimmerman The Diplomat.

Roberts, P. (2015). A Century of International Affairs Think Tanks in Historical Perspective. International Journal, 70(4), 535-555. DOI: 10.1177/0020702015590591

Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program. (2008). 2008 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report.

Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program. (2020). 2020 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report.

Wei, L. (2015, February 3) Promoting to Build High-Quality New Think Tanks with Chinese Characteristics through Reform and Innovation. China Economic Times.

Zimmermann, E. (2016). Think Tanks and Non-Traditional Security: Governance Entrepreneurs in Asia. Palgrave MacMillan.

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