WeChat QR Code

Home>Events>>News & Events

Questioning the Objectivity of a Venerable Washington Think Tank

2017-08-30 16:19:24       source:IPP Review

August 30, 2017

By Mark J. Valencia

Washington’s Center for Security and International Studies is one of America’s oldest and most respected think tanks focused on defense and security. As such, its activities and research are generally beyond reproach.  But Greg Rushford has posted an ‘expose’ entitled “How Hanoi’s Hidden Hand Helps Shape a Think Tank’s Agenda in Washington” (See The Rushford Report, 11 July 2017). The Report implies sub rosa bias in the organization of CSIS’s South China Sea conferences. Moreover, some have suggested that there may be bias in the selection of research topics interpretation of the results in one of CSIS’s more public projects-- the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI)—also focused on the South China Sea.


CSIS has organized annual South China Sea Conferences since 2011.   According to the agenda, its Seventh Annual South China Sea Conference in July was organized by the CSIS’s Southeast Asia Program and the AMTI.   No other organizers or funders were listed. Speakers or facilitators from the U.S. were quite high level involving several former senior government officials with responsibilities for Asia, as well as CSIS staff including the Director of its Southeast Asia Program and the AMTI Director. As might be expected, the US participants presented generally pro-US, anti-China perspectives. Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado and Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee’s Asia Panel gave the opening speech on “Renewing American Leadership in the Asia-Pacific”.


Speakers from Asia –with perhaps the exception of those from Vietnam--were comparatively low level --including the two from China. Rushford implies that the imbalance in participant level may not have been a coincidence. Rushford alleges that Vietnam “had an important say in who has been invited to the annual CSIS maritime conferences, and who hasn’t”.  He infers this because most of the funding for the recent conferences has come from the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam (DAV), an arm of its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  To Rushford, ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’. Indeed, according to Carlyle Thayer, a well known expert on the South China Sea, ”Vietnam, like most other countries, promotes its interests by trying to shape the agenda in a way that is favorable to its interests. The issue Greg Rushford raises is why CSIS is so coy about not revealing the financial details of what the DAV contributes and this might affect the selection of speakers”. This has caused Thayer –and relevant others—to lose “confidence in both the CSIS and DAV”.


Rushford presents evidence to back up his allegations. He reveals an e-mail exchange between DAV and CSIS principals that indicates possible bias regarding the purpose of the conference and invitations to speakers. DAV’s principle contact for the conference Tran Truong Thuy informed one of the CSIS’s organizers Murray Hiebert : “Murray, we cannot agree with the way you handle the conference. You invited Chinese Amb without consultation with us and now saying that you cannot disinvite him. Please understand that to create a forum for promoting Chinese propaganda is not our purpose”. Hiebert replied“Our goal is not to create a forum for Chinese propaganda, but to create a credible forum that shows China’s unacceptable behavior in the [South China Sea].” The exchange indicates prior prejudicial assumptions and perhaps bias on the part of CSIS—not to mention that of the Vietnamese funders.


At least one CSIS staff who organized the conference also has a key role in the AMTI.  According to its website, “The goal of AMTI is not to promote a particular point of view but to serve as a clearing house for divergent views that are based on the same set of facts”.


But AMTI’s research and reports seem to have a subtle slant. This is indicated by what AMTI does not research and as well as by the staff’s interpretation of their results. In its seemingly obsessive focus on China, until the Rushford report came out AMTI had largely neglected the ‘lack of self-restraint’ and ‘militarization’ of features by other claimants like Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan.


The AMTI reports accuse China of “militarizing” the features it occupies. But it is the U.S. — not China — that militarily dominates the South China Sea—and the region. Nevertheless US military activities there receive scant attention and mention by the AMTI.   With the pivot, the U.S. has clearly increased its military presence in the region. Indeed, the U.S .— unlike China — already has military “places” in Southeast Asia — in its military allies the Philippines and Thailand — and more recently has persuaded Malaysia and Singapore to allow it to refuel and even “place” its Poseiden subhunters and electronic warfare platforms on their territory. These assets operate over the South China Sea and primarily target China.


Moreover, some AMTI reports and staff interviews hype what China might or could do with its military assets. For example, a recent AMTI report (“China’s Big Three Near Completion”) concludes that China “can now deploy military assets including combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers to the Spratly Islands at any time.” It is indeed a fact that China is now able to do this. But then its Director said in an interview regarding the report’s release “…look for deployment in the near future,” and “This is ‘militarization”. He also said, “If you’re a Southeast Asian fisherman or an oil and gas exploration vessel, you don’t operate [presumably within China’s nine-dashed line claim] unless the Chinese let you operate, because they now are watching everything you do, and as soon as they send planes out there they’ll be able to intervene anywhere, anytime.” This implies that China is intends to do this.


The same AMTI report also concludes that the completion of the three air bases together with its base in the Paracels to the north “will allow Chinese military to operate over nearly the entire South China Sea.” That is a fact. But the AMTI Director elaborated in another interview that China “will be able to build out its power projection capabilities bit by bit until it establishes de facto control over the South China Sea. What China is really doing is establishing all the necessary infrastructure to allow it to deploy military forces quickly and decisively”. There are indeed many ‘bad’  things that could happen in the South China Sea, including continued provocative actions by the US Navy, but that does not mean they will happen.


On 9 August, AMTI issued a report disputing claims by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Philippines Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano that China is no longer reclaiming land in the Spratlys. To refute that claim, the AMTI report documents recent Chinese reclamation work in the Paracels –a different island group far to the north. But as the AMTI researchers should know, China and the Philippines do not regard this group as part of the area in dispute nor as the focus of the ASEAN communique being negotiated at the time. It has long been under China’s control and is disputed only by it and Vietnam (and Taiwan). This conflation of the two groups of features favors Vietnam’s position of wanting to include the Paracels in “the disputed area” over objections from China and other ASEAN members.


In its report of 17 August, the AMTI ‘revealed’ that there was a group of Chinese fishing vessels and two law enforcement ships near the Philippines claimed and occupied feature it calls Pag-asa. The AMTI report added that the flotilla’s presence was “provocative” and speculated that China may be trying to “dissuade” the Philippines from planned construction there. But Philippines Foreign Minister Cayetano has scolded those who criticized the presence of Chinese ships based on the AMTI report but were not criticizing the presence of US warships in the disputed waters. He said “You have to realize that their [CSIS/AMTI] reason for being is to pursue the interests of the American people. We have to pursue Philippine interests.” There were also apparently several Vietnamese fishing vessels in the area but apparently they were not an AMTI concern.


AS US Senator Elizabeth Warren said regarding similar allegations against another Washington think tank, The New America Foundation, “Think tanks play a critical role in shaping policy, but their credibility is jeopardized when decisions are based on funder preferences”. Given these concerns, CSIS/AMTI should reassure fellow analysts and policy makers in Asia and at home that its work on the South China Sea is objective and balanced.  It could do this by inviting to its next South China Sea Conference higher level speakers from Asia including China, as well as US analysts with more divergent views, and by broadening the scope and balance of its research and analysis.


A longer version of this piece appeared in the IPP Review https://www.ippreview.com/index.php/Blog/single/id/536.html

Mark J. Valencia is an Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China