At a time when governments and policymakers throughout Asia are struggling to find common ground on territorial disputes and other contentious matters, think tanks are trying to tap into their unique roles to bridge the gaps.

Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies, said at a recent forum in Tokyo that the territorial and maritime disputes have intensified in the past two to three years and that the “challenge for us is how to manage those disputes.”

Ruan was in Tokyo in late May to join fellow experts in the second Asia Think Tank Summit, organized by the Tokyo-based Asian Development Bank Institute and the University of Pennsylvania’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program.

“If we don’t handle (political tensions) properly, it will surely undermine the prospect of further economic integration in the region,” he said.

Ruan said think tanks can help by reaching out and engaging the public and media, and by forging “international collaboration in formulating ideas,” with an eye to going beyond national borders and looking at the global context.

Tensions are running high between China and Japan, as well as China and some ASEAN countries, notably Vietnam and the Philippines, over the sovereignty of various islands in the East China and South China seas.

Ruan said think tanks in general could also contribute to stronger ties in the region as ASEAN seeks to create its own economic community by 2015.

Takashi Shiraishi, president of the Tokyo-based Institute of Development Economies-JETRO, acknowledged the current situation shows there is “clearly tension mounting between the regional economic architecture and regional security system.”

Despite the hostile political environment, experts said think tanks can conduct joint research with their foreign counterparts to bolster ties at their level when relations between governments are strained.

Other than the headline-making maritime disputes, attention is also focused on ASEAN for what it can offer — a promising untapped market for the world with an ample supply of labor — although it still has a long way to go to address development needs.

ASEAN faces “increasing challenges that can’t be addressed by one country alone or one sector,” Veerathai Santiprabhob, adviser to the Thailand Development Research Institute, said, highlighting the need for a transnational approach to address challenges such as the movement of professionals within the ASEAN region.

For regional prosperity, Veerathai said, think tanks need “to be visionary.” While governments and the private sector might focus on short-term goals, think tanks can map out longer-term policies that can eventually help in Asia’s economic integration, he said.

With Asia facing a “critical and important moment,” think tanks can “help in a proactive way to shape key economic and social policies on a regional basis,” said James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program.

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