Getting to know the Middle Kingdom

(Edmonton) As China becomes an increasingly dominant political and economic player on the world stage, having resources and experts who can help navigate and explain contemporary China becomes important from an academic, industrial and governmental perspective.

Established in 2005, the University of Alberta’s China Institute’s mission relates squarely to these ideas. Beyond its responsibility to forge linkages between China-related initiatives and scholarship at the U of A, a large body of its work relates to promoting cultural, scientific and business exchanges.

China Institute Director Gordon Houlden says the institute’s work varies from providing strategic advice to faculties building academic links in China to working in the university’s China Regional Advisory Council, which provides counsel and advice to senior administration on initiatives in China. But he notes that the institute’s role is also increasingly expanding its role and function beyond the boundaries of the academy.

Building internal and external partnerships

“What we’ve been trying to do in the China Institute is to create a small think tank that can provide interpretation of events stakeholders such as media governments and industrial business partners,” said Houlden. The institute’s role, in these cases, says Houlden, is not to serve as business consultants, but to provide strategic advice and research as needed to industries and government both inside the province and across Canada. It is a role that is keeping the institute increasingly busy, he says.

“This is a role that is developing,” said Houlden. “It’s really about responding to demand. Interest in the People’s Republic of China is so keen, especially given their economic relevance to the future of this province, that we find that government institutions and industrial associations are coming to us to ask our advice or to obtain our views on particular developments in China.”

Academic leadership driving policy, decision-making

Houlden says that some countries draw regularly on university-based think tanks when it comes to public policy formulation. By driving forward public policy-relevant work and research and demonstrating leadership in this area, Houlden believes the China Institute is highly relevant, especially as China’s importance for Alberta, and Canada as a whole, grows.

The latest conference held by the institute is one such example, he says. Dubbed Canada, US and China: Maritime Security Issues, being held in partnership with the University of Alberta’s Institute of American Studies and the Canadian Circumpolar Institute, the conference draws together representatives from industry, government and academia, as well as senior naval officers from Canada, China and the United States. At issue are the questions of sovereignty, security and international shipping in the South China Sea and the Arctic. Houlden notes that this conference is not a rhetorical exercise, but one that discusses a clear and present concern of international importance.

“These are issues of, quite literally, war and peace and economic prosperity, which are involved in the South China Sea and the Arctic Ocean. This is a hot zone of conflict between large countries who, they feel, have vital economic interests at play,” said Houlden. “We are ultimately hoping for solutions and dialogue, that’s why we have governments and navy and academics from a whole range of countries.

“I think we need to deal with these over-the-horizon realities and I think this why we’re able to help draw policymakers and people of operational experience, such as the commander of Canada’s Pacific Fleet, to a conference well away from the Pacific shores.”