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APAPAsia Pacific Agenda Project

First Forum: Tokyo, Japan
November 20-21, 1995

Report on the Asia Pacific Agenda
Tokyo Forum

Charles E. Morrison
Senior Fellow
East-West Center, Honolulu
Senior Research Associate
Japan Center for International Exchange


The Asia Pacific Agenda Tokyo Forum, which was held November 20-21, 1995, and which coincided with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Japan Center for International Exchange (JCIE), provided an opportunity for individuals associated with key policy research institutions and foundations in Japan and around the Asia Pacific region to review important trends affecting the region and institutional directions and needs. More than one hundred individuals attended the forum, including twenty overseas participants from East and Southeast Asia, North America, and Europe. Many of the participants are or had been at one time founders, presidents, or research directors of their institutions.

This article does not attempt to provide a summary of the discussions. Rather it examines some of the main themes of the forum and their implications for the region's research and policy agenda and for its policy-oriented research institutions.

The Significance of the APEC Economic Leaders Summit

Taking place immediately following the summit meeting of economic leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) in Osaka, the Tokyo Forum was well timed to review the significance of the regional cooperation movement and more generally of policy issues in the region.

Several participants had been involved in activities in Osaka as members of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), as leaders in the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC), or as journalists. There was uniform agreement among these individuals that, despite the last minute cancellation of U.S. President Clinton's attendance at APEC because of the government budget crisis in the United States, the Osaka ministerial and summit meetings had been very successful. The conflicts that had emerged in the weeks prior to Osaka over the comprehensiveness of the trade liberalization and facilitation efforts, the inclusion in the discussions of most-favored-nation commitments, and the degree of "comparability" of individual member's liberalization commitments had been solved through satisfactory compromises. Japanese leadership, while of a different kind than that provided by Clinton in 1993 and Indonesian President Suharto in 1994, had been effective in moving the diverse membership toward an agreement. APEC had thus moved from a phase of establishing and filling out the details of a vision toward one of implementation. In fact, noted C. Fred Bergsten, chair of the EPG, APEC will begin implementation of the trade liberalization efforts in 1997, well ahead of the EPG's recommendation for beginning in 2000.

It was also agreed that APEC faced continuing challenges in several areas, including the following:

The Broader Policy Agenda

APEC is symbolic of the change and economic integration in the Asia Pacific region. A broader set of forces are at work, participants at the Tokyo Forum agreed, that will seriously challenge policymakers in the coming years. The following three basic dynamics were discussed:

In each case, these changes are occurring within a context of global development and change. A full examination of the changes and their significance requires both nonregional scholars as well as well-grounded regional specialists. Analyses based simply on the region lack the comparative dimension needed to determine whether and to what extent the processes in Asia are unique, while on the other hand the lack of solid area expertise has often resulted in misinterpretations by social scientists whose main interest in the area may come from seeking to prove or disprove a particular general hypothesis. Since the processes of change are occurring more rapidly in East and Southeast Asia than in other parts of the region or world, they raise special problems as the relative weight and influence of countries in these regions increase.

Within these broad thematic areas, there are many issues of regional importance on which policy-related institutions will be working. Participants mentioned labor migration, environmental policies, the political influence of new social forces, gender issues, equity issues, the mass media, managing the transition from socialist to market-based economies, changing values, nationalism, and religion. Beyond such issues of interest to social scientists and policymakers, it was noted, are basic questions of changing values and identities. Given the limitations of funds and human energy, however, the crux of the question for research institutions is how to prioritize.

Those engaged in academic research as the discovery of knowledge for its own sake would have a somewhat different set of priorities than those engaged in research primarily for the purpose of influencing policy. One way of prioritizing research for this latter purpose would be to give attention to issues that meet one or more of four major criteria. These are that:

Policy Institutions

From the viewpoint of participants at the forum, the successful Osaka summit and the research and policy agenda for the region at the national, regional, and global levels underline the importance of strong, independent policy research institutions and functioning networks among them. The APEC leaders, for example, have relied on an outside body, the EPG, to provide ideas and direction unlikely to emerge from the bureaucracies. The existence of APEC itself could be traced to ideas circulating within the academic community twenty-five years before APEC's creation and gradually brought to fruition through the dedicated efforts of a network of Asia Pacific activists largely drawn from the scholarly and business fields.

However, the political culture of much of the region, which emphasizes governmental prerogative, has been indifferent to or even actively hostile to the development of independent institutions. The demand for private information, except through bodies explicitly set up by governments, and the financial incentives through the tax system for encouraging private institution building rarely exist in the region. The head of a major U.S. think tank noted that the lack of such organizations in Japan is particularly acute. With Japan's economic success and tremendous importance in the world economy, there are many regional and global issues on which Japanese institutions should be working closely with international counterparts, but it is very difficult for those counterparts to find Japanese institutions of sufficient size and capable of solid research. This participant contrasted Japan with the Republic of Korea, where a number of governmental institutions working on international economic issues have a substantial number of trained professionals and considerable flexibility in addressing issues in a manner similar to that of independent institutions.

Several participants suggested that independence should not be thought of in a formal legal sense. With appropriate understanding by government officials and sufficient autonomy through boards of directors that may consist of private individuals, public policy institutions can play a very constructive role in the development of policy advice. As one Southeast Asian participant commented, it is quite appropriate for governments to help provide the agenda for policy-oriented institutions; the key question is whether they control the research results. His view, echoed elsewhere, was that one test is the ability of the institutions to disseminate their research products freely. Another foundation official argued that even where legal independence exists, the key question is what an institution does with that independence. Does it provide truly original and useful products and do those products reach the audiences that can make use of them?


There has been a considerable spate of institution building within the Asia Pacific region at the national level, but the region lacks regional institutions. With the growth of transnational issues and regional organizations, there has been increasing recognition of the need for institutions in the region to work with each other in order to reach broader policy audiences. These networks have emerged only in the past twenty-five years and have grown even more dramatically in the past ten years as reflected in such institutions as PECC, the Council for Security Cooperation in Asia Pacific, and a variety of APEC-related institutions, including the APEC Study Centers. However, the Asia Pacific networks face a number of challenges:

Building Institutional Infrastructure

Given the rich policy research agenda and the underdeveloped state of the region's policy think tanks and networks, what can be done to deploy the available resources most effectively? One participant suggested three possible future scenarios for policy-oriented research: (a) continued ad hoc development of research institutions and networks, leaving things largely as they are, (b) stronger coordination of disparate activities, most of them taking place at the national level, and (c) creation of an Asia Pacific policy research center. He and others believed that the establishment of a major regional center lacks feasibility, but that it would also be suicidal to leave things as they are.

Caution toward trying to create a major new regional institution was echoed by others. One American participant produced a checklist of aspects that must be present when creating an institution, including defining your niche or "domain" of research, understanding your audience, and developing an effective approach to research and dissemination. This experienced participant also cautioned that some guarantee of multiyear funding is almost a requirement.

It was generally recognized that achieving stronger coordination among research institutions would be difficult because of funding and human resource limitations, but several suggestions along this line were mentioned. One participant thought that it would be useful to initiate a sort of "peer review" process by which participants in one professional association or an international organization would review policy research projects both in the planning stage and in the publication stage. Another suggested that a single institution might take on such tasks as monitoring research and maintaining a clearinghouse for information, identifying research gaps and encouraging others to fill them, and providing a newsletter including such items as funding possibilities. This participant felt that JCIE would be an ideal institution for carrying out these functions as well as conducting substantive research itself, but cautioned that other institutions would have to help.

It was also noted that in the long run the development of the demand side for policy materials will probably be a greater determinant of the future of the region's research institutions. Some felt encouraged that governments by necessity were increasingly recognizing the benefit of policy studies from outside the official bureaucracy. But, as one Japanese participant put it, there is still a basic mentality that such institutions are valuable mainly for their public relations worth. Fortunately, this is changing.

Leadership is another important and almost wholly unpredictable factor. Basic research in Asia is usually not linked to policy advice. Domestic analysis is usually not well linked to international policy-making. Relevant audiences—politicians, corporate CEOs—are usually not closely connected with the region's research institutions or tend to have an almost exclusive relationship with only one institution.

Finally, training is another essential activity. It was generally agreed that policy institutions have to define the scope of their educational activity carefully. They can easily become overloaded with what is essentially very labor-intensive activity. Research experience as a younger, perhaps postdoctoral professional can be particularly valuable, and networks provide opportunities to exchange personnel for this kind of purpose.

A Continuing Forum

All agreed that the Tokyo Forum served a valuable function in providing a venue for research directors to exchange information and ideas. It was noted that the Asia Pacific region does not now have a regular forum for exchange among research directors. If the Tokyo Forum became an annual event, hosted alternately by different research institutions, this would increase the information flow among institutions and allow their key research personnel and foundation colleagues to review research priorities and institutional needs on a regular basis. Meetings around specific projects or issues are no substitute for meetings on overall research priorities, it was emphasized, because they do not examine institutional needs nor trade-offs in the overall use of resources.

A regular forum would also provide good opportunities for smaller side meetings on specific projects or topical areas and perhaps help avoid duplicative research or dialogue projects. Finally, such a forum could draw attention to the important role that the independent policy research sector can make to informed policy-making and public awareness of policy issues. This need for this sector can only grow with the deepening complexity of the issues and the increased impact of public and political opinion in the policy-making process.