Sun, Dec 05, 2010 - Page 8 News List

Developing the nation’s system of think tanks

By Margot Chen 陳麗菊

While both the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have followed up on the five special municipality elections last weekend by claiming victory, the DPP has also announced its intent to set up a new think tank. The main goal of this think tank would be to discuss and research Taiwan’s China policies and to function as a direct partner for dialogue and exchange with Chinese academics, think tanks and even officials. In the short term, this move is a necessary part of the political agenda in the run-up to the legislative elections late next year and the presidential election in 2012, in that it provides research into, and strategic preparation for, China policy and cross-strait relations. Looking a bit further ahead, I hope this think tank will play an active part in filling several other functions.

One of these functions would be to get a grasp of topical issues and to carry out policy research. Taiwan has many domestic think tanks, but apart from the more well-known Taiwan Institute of Economic Research (台灣經濟研究院), the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research (中華經濟研究院) and the Institute of International Relations (國際關係研究中心) at National Chengchi University, all of which have sufficient staff and resources to engage in long-term practical policy research, most other local think tanks are restricted by their financial situations. Few expert researchers engage in the study of public policy implementation and most think tanks function more as public forums where experts and academics discuss issues based on the current situation. This often results in merely pointing out problems and directions, and the think tanks then simply function as monitoring institutions.

Another function would be to act as a “revolving door” institution for scooping up government personnel. Compared with US think tanks, the financial situations of many Taiwanese think tanks make it difficult for them to take on that function, which would allow them to accept or invite some of the many talented politicians that have had to leave their government positions following transitions of national government. Having been able to do so would have allowed the DPP to keep and build on these capabilities, while the think tanks would have been able to use the practical experience of these individuals to strengthen their own research capabilities.

Compared with the KMT’s National Policy Foundation (國家政策研究基金會), which has absorbed politically appointed officials that have had to step down, many DPP officials that had to leave office after the KMT’s victory in 2008 have had to face unemployment or abandon politics for the business world, where they may once again have had to face unemployment following the financial crisis. Not only has this caused the DPP to lose many talented politicians, it has also meant that the party has not been able to keep and build on its government experience. Thirty-one experts from the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research were given important Cabinet posts during former US president Ronald Reagan’s administration. It can only be hoped that the DPP’s think tank will develop in the same direction.

A third function should be to engage in think tank diplomacy. The challenges brought by China’s rise has had an impact on Taiwan’s foreign relations and national interests. Taiwan needs a group of people that understands the US or Japan, and it also needs a group of people that understands China. In addition to promoting bilateral understanding, party think tank diplomacy would help avoid misunderstandings. It would also increase the level of accuracy when building an understanding of their counterpart’s policy and developments, which would serve as a good reference when laying down policy.

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