In response to an invitation of the world famous U.S. think tank, the RAND Corporation, I accompanied a delegation on a working visit to this well-known institution.
Located in Los Angeles near the town of Santa Monica, the RAND Corporation was spread across several elegant small buildings with green lawns everywhere which formed very pleasant scenery. Here gathered the most intelligent minds from the United States as well as many visiting foreign experts from all over the world, who engage in research and academic exchanges.
Think-tank experts from the two great powers China and the United States began a rather interesting and meaningful tit-for-tat in this quiet and somewhat mysterious academic campus. Our American colleagues were all "China hands." They had been to China on more than one occasion and some could even speak fluent Chinese, which undoubtedly made us feel like old friends at the first meeting with each other. But when they really started to engage in academic exchange, they spoke, without exception, in English. This made our translator very tired.
Tit-for-tat between the two sides first showed up in the exchange on the prioritized topics of discussion. We on the Chinese side were concerned with the U.S. policy toward Taiwan, hoping to find out the cards in the American hand. The Americans were interested in the issue of the Korean Peninsula, especially the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons. They were anxious to know whether North Korea had nuclear weapons and how many nuclear weapons they had, because, in their view, the Chinese experts surely understood the true situation in this area.
RAND, as the most influential U.S. think tank, appeared to be a civilian corporation on the surface, but in reality, it has a deep military background. They not only directly service the U.S. Air Force, but also often accept missions from the Pentagon as advisers. We were of course aware of this background. Therefore, the exchange was limited to academic fields. As for other things, even if we knew, we would not mention them. In addition, regarding some situations that the Americans were eager to know, we really did not know.
In the exchange, the two sides of course wanted to express their points of view. Focusing around the main topics, China and the United States each had a person as the main speaker. Then free comments followed, which was when the tit-for-tat began.
First Round: The Taiwan Issue
The Chinese side stressed that the Taiwan issue is China's internal affair, but because of the intervention by the United States, America naturally became an involved party. Therefore it was necessary to address this issue. The Taiwan issue infringes upon China's core interests and is the biggest obstacle in the development of the Sino-US relations. China has its own "bottom line" in the struggle of opposing "Taiwan independence" and that is, once Taiwan declares independence, China will take all necessary means to safeguard the nation’s unity; even if the United States intervenes, China would not be fearful.
The American side said that the United States would abide by the one-China policy and would not support Taiwan independence. But concerning the Taiwan Relations Act, since this was a domestic legal matter, the U.S. would not stop arms sales to Taiwan. As soon as something happens in the Taiwan Strait, the United States surely would intervene, but the intervention method would be flexible.
The two sides debated heatedly on this issue. Although it was impossible to reach a consensus, both in the end had laid out their cards.
Second Round: The Korean Peninsula Issue
The Chinese side emphasized that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and maintaining the stability of the region were China's basic national policy. The Chinese would like to see smoothed relations between North and South Korea, and to promote dialogue and cooperation between the two sides. However, the issue of the Korean Peninsula, as a problem left over by history, was complicated. It was very difficult to solve this problem; in particular, the United States continued to station troops in South Korea and the U.S. and South Korea military exercised regularly together, which put great pressure on North Korea. This was also an important reason for North Korea to develop nuclear weapons. Despite China’s non-support of this, the United States must also make active efforts to eliminate the distrust between the U.S. and North Korea, and pragmatically push for the peace process on the Korean Peninsula.
The United States on the other hand believed that its troops in South Korea were an important force in keeping the stability of the Korean Peninsula and would not in the short term consider the issue of troop withdrawal. Frequent crises on the Korean Peninsula were caused by North Korea taking a brinkmanship policy. In particular, North Korea was committed to the development of nuclear weapons, not only endangering U.S. troops, but also affecting the security and stability of the entire Northeast Asia region. Japan also would not sit by and watch. As for North Korea's nuclear facilities, the United States was now pushing North Korea to abandon its nuclear program in peaceful terms, but did not rule out forcing it by military means. The United States hoped that China would actively exert influence and properly resolve the Korean nuclear issue.
The Chinese and American sides had very heated discussions on this topic. But what disappointed the U.S. side was that they did not eventually find out clearly whether North Korea really had nuclear weapons with combat capability or not.
The exchange at the RAND Corporation was arranged for a total of four days. Apart from the tit-for-tat between the two sides, the U.S. side also arranged the presentation of several academic research reports related to the development of China's military strength, the policy of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the security situation in the Asia-Pacific region, etc. As could be seen from the reports, American researchers did very detailed homework and paid much attention to combined qualitative and quantitative analyses. In addition to including a large number of tables and charts, some had also designed models. What surprised me the most was that the Americans had mastered very detailed knowledge of the situation of the Chinese armed forces, including the military sub-district level leaders that were in their lists, not to mention the rest.
During the visit to offices of research staff at the RAND Corporation, I accidentally saw a wall map of China which was plotted and marked with different colors, on which China’s Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia regions had been marked in red. I asked a U.S. researcher: “What do you mean by this?” He smiled and replied: “This is a topic under study, which results in a new map that may arise 30 years later after China encounters the problems of Chinese nationalities.” This shocked me deeply. Americans surprisingly were studying China 30 years in the future, and, in their vision, the future China could be this way as they imagined! In my view, this was Americans’ wishful thinking. But shouldn’t we also be vigilant about the evil intention packaged and hidden inside the future U.S. policy toward China?
The RAND Corporation, as the most advanced U.S. think tank, of course has to adapt to U.S. national interests and strategic needs. Judging from this point, both sides were opponents. But on the other hand, the management style and research methods of the RAND Corporation also inspired me very much. They adopted a way of encouraging competition by expanding the offices of senior researchers and providing them with aides. But if their results could not outperform others in the following year, they would no longer be allowed to enjoy that kind of treatment. In this environment of encouraging talents, researchers at the RAND Corporation are all workaholics. Every year they produce a large number of books and research reports. Outsiders regarded the RAND Corporation as the American think tank. Surely this was not an undeserved fame.
Think tanks in China and the United States have the mission to serve their respective national decision-making. They compete with each other in a silent way, but at the same time also work as important bridges of exchanges and communications between the two countries at the expert level. The exchange and tit-for-tat this time at the RAND Corporation in the United States undoubtedly leaves me with deep impressions and much reflection: in the grand game between big countries, the strategic game bears the brunt, and think tanks are the backbones. In facing challenges, are China's think tanks ready?