Chinese defense think tanks face enormous challenges: expert

2015-07-21 13:23China Military Online Editor: Wang Fan

China's military established its first think tank for national security studies at the National Defense University of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) on July 9, 2015.

The "China National Security Studies Center" will focus on the major security issues faced by China, propose advice to the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and the Central Military Commission and formulate National Security Annual Report of China; the center will also host high-end annual forum on national security issues on a regular basis.

The importance of think tanks is self-evident. After the Opinions on Strengthening the Construction of New Think Tanks with Chinese Characteristics issued by the CPC Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council, China has accelerated the construction of think tanks in various fields including the military.

According to University of Pennsylvania's 2014 Global Go To Think Tanks Index Report released on January 22 this year, there are 6,681 think tanks worldwide and China has 429. In the "Top 150 Global Think Tanks", there are seven Chinese think tanks. Unfortunately, no Chinese think tank is listed in the special ranking of "Defense and National Security".

Similar to think tanks in political, economic and international relations, think tanks of national defense, military operations and counter-terrorism are also divided into two types, namely the official think tanks and the private think tanks. I describe think tanks assigned to the military as the military think tanks, for example, the Institute for National Strategic Studies of the U.S. National Defense University. I also describe other private think tanks as defense think tanks, for example, the famous RAND Corporation.

In the United States, military think tanks in the Ministry of Defense system that serve the military directly and defense think tanks that assist or affect the formulation of national defense strategy and military strategy have been booming. They have played an important role in guiding and promoting the planning of U.S. defense strategy, formulation of military strategy and implementation of combat operations.

Meanwhile in China, the prelude to China's new military revolution has been opened to respond to the new threats and adapt to the new structure. To realize the dream of "a strong military", the question of how to give full play to the role of private defense think tanks and build China's "RAND" has become an issue of great concern.

In China, private defense think tank is a new thing. How to build defense think tanks with Chinese characteristics? I think we should learn from foreign experience in terms of the development of defense think tank and at the same time, take into consideration of the situation in China.

Think tanks should target the military, government agencies and the defense industry as the major customers. Think tanks will provide independent and objective intellectual resources for military reform and national defense construction, which are characteristics of Chinese defense think tanks.

The independent thinking and analysis method is essential for defense think tanks. For example, the United States has a large number of military think tanks and the military is directly in charge of financial support, personnel system and other aspects of these think tanks.

But these think tanks can remain independent in the research direction and ways of thinking. For the defense think tank, it is also the same. The RAND Corporation, who has no affiliation with the U.S. Department of Defense, said at the beginning of its establishment that it is an independent, objective and non-profit advisory body and it does not represent any faction. RAND has been implementing this concept in its research work ever since.

However, think tanks without government funding must "make money" in order to survive. In the U.S., various independent defense think tanks have adopted rules of commercial operation to gain funds necessary to their development.

For example, they usuallyexpand fundraising channels and win user research projects. In addition, "long-term and stable profit product line" is their main business model. For example, the annual membership model, database service model, periodicals and publications model and training model.

The core competitiveness is a must should the defense think tank want to achieve sustainable development. This core competitiveness is the ability to create unique value and it is closely related to the information resources, financial resources and human resources of the think tank. To create the core competitiveness of the defense think tank, I think we must focus on the following aspects.

First, establish its own main research line. Do not get distracted by "hot spots" but adhere to the established direction. For example, the RAND Corporation is famous for its research on cutting-edge military technology and major military strategy. Its Center for Naval Analyses focuses on naval strategy and tactics while the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments focuses on strategic assessment and analysis of defense resources allocation. Different departments have their own strengths and advantages.

Second, establish and continuously improve its own methodology and analysis tools. For example, the RAND Corporation has attached importance to the construction of methods and means and had established a comprehensive qualitative and quantitative analysis method under the net assessment framework. At the same time, it also established high-quality research and analysis standards and a quality review mechanism.

The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments adopts war games systems to analyze future wars. The "20 ×× years of war games" jointly released by RAND and Science Applications International Corporation is a classic case. The well-known "Air Sea Battle – A Point of Departure Operational Concept" and "East Asia 2025" are also masterpieces of war game deduction.

Third, build its own data projects to lay a solid foundation for future development. The U.S. military and defense think tanks all attach great importance to the construction of data projects. For think tanks, data is a sign of maturity. The decision model and war model created by the RAND Corporation are supported by enormous war data, forces data, equipment data, economic data, cultural data, geographic data, etc.

It must be noted that talent is the source for the revitalization of defense think tanks. For the U.S. military and defense think tanks, retired U.S. military officers, intelligence officers and government officials are the core.

According to incomplete statistics, the number of retired military officers in Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Center for a New American Security, U.S. Council on Foreign Relations and Center for Strategic and International Studies are 9, 7, 2 and 10 respectively. The retired officers have greatly strengthened the professionalism of U.S. military and defense think tanks.

The U.S. defense think tanks also pay special attention to exchanges and cooperation with the military. If necessary, the military will send active duty military officer to join the research team in the capacity of a researcher of the Department of Defense. This synergistic relationship ensures the quality of research and the effectiveness of the research results. On the other hand, America's unique "revolving door" mechanism of human mobility also turns military point of view to think tank ideas and vice versa.

In China, the reform of the army professionalization is still taking place and academic exchanges between the military and society have not yet been "normalized". This has brought enormous challenges to the construction and development of Chinese defense think tanks. In this way, the future development of Chinese defense think tanks lies on the recruitment of retired officers and training of talents.

(Li Jian, Knowfar Institute for Strategic and Defense Studies, China)

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