As China Rises and Tensions Grow in Asia, Which Funders Are Paying Attention?

China's economic might has famously soared in recent decades. Now, its military power and geopolitical ambitions are finally catching up. It's become the second-largest military spender in the world, and in past few years, has been throwing its weight around in East Asia, including laying claim to disputed areas of the South China Sea and making some of its neighbors very nervous. Amid these developments and growing Chinese nationalism, U.S-China relations have grown more fraught. 

It's a dangerous situation. And given the stakes of maintaining peace in East Asia, as well as between two nuclear-armed superpowers, you might think that any number of foundations and philanthropists would be paying attention. 

You'd be wrong. As we've discussed in the past, China is definitely on the radar of some funders, especially those worried about climate change who understand the importance of reducing that country's greenhouse gas emissions. Funders interested in financial inclusion, like MetLife and Western Union, are also giving in China, as are a few major global health funders. Meanwhile, some individual philanthropists, most notably Stephen Schwarzman, have given big to promote cultural exchange and scholarship with China.

Related:

But the funding terrain is much sparser when it comes to managing the security challenges related to China's rise. In large part, this reflects an overall lack of philanthropy these days to address global issues or war and peace—a shortcoming that is profoundly short-sighted given that security and stability are basic prerequisites for humanity's well-being. But it also speaks to how other international challenges, such as human rights abuses and refugees, tend to command more urgent attention from funders—while the pick-and-shovel work of strengthening regional security over time can fall by the wayside. 

Related: War and Peace Hall of Fame: The Funders Pushing Back Against a World of Violence

You might think that the Rockefeller and Ford foundations—both with long histories in East Asia—might be keenly focused on China's deteriorating relations with its neighbors and the U.S. In fact, though, neither of these foundations have dedicated grantmaking programs on global security issues. (Ford is exploring bringing back such funding.) Other funders in the security space, such as MacArthur, are narrowly focused on nuclear issues, or are quite small. 

All of which explains why the grantmaking of the Carnegie Corporation of New York looms so large right now when it comes to East Asia security and U.S.-China relations. 

Carnegie's grantmaking for peace and security covers a wide swath of issues, but grants toward issues related to China have increased notably in recent years. Starting around 2013, the foundation began raising its China-related grantmaking, with awards covering a range of foreign policy, security and research matters, in addition to addressing China’s relationship with other Asia-Pacific countries. The bulk of funds that year, around $4.6 million, went to George Washington University to support various programs including a research project examining the U.S. strategic nuclear policy toward China. The University of California, San Diego was also awarded two grants totaling $1.1 million for its work organizing and engaging non-official and informal discussions with experts from China, Japan, the United States, Russia, South Korea, and North Korea on “pressing and longer-term regional security issues.”

Related: How Carnegie Is Helping Nurture a New Generation of Peace Advocates

Things have only picked up since then, with Carnegie making at least 18 grants in the past two years totalling nearly $10 million to address U.S.-China relations and regional security issues. Grantees have included the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the National Bureau of Asian Research, the Aspen Institute, and a half-dozen U.S. universities. Carnegie has also supported work by the Asia Society to pull together experts to study U.S.-China relations. 

As always with Carnegie, we wonder whether it tends to put too many eggs in the research basket, with grants mainly going to policy wonks who write reports and convene seminars. That work is important, of course, but we were struck by how creative and effective the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Ploughshares were in fostering better relations with Iran in the years leading up the Iran nuclear deal, with grants going to some unusual suspects and activities. Given the stakes in East Asia, it'd be nice to see more out-of-the-box thinking from the few funders who are paying attention here. 

RelatedPhilanthropy and the Iran Nukes Deal: An "Acupuncture Moment"