Two recent publications by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the Center for International and Security Studies (CSIS) demonstrate blindness, bias, and bellicosity. The articles condemn China’s policies and actions in the South China Sea while ignoring the similar transgressions of the others there and then urge more robust US military action to deter China. These analyses ignore reality.
The first piece by Ngo Di Lan criticizes my recent piece in The Diplomat and argues that “redundant” US Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea are not only useful but that US policy and actions should be more aggressive and “tit for tat.”
However, Lan’s critique misunderstands my points. I am not questioning the necessity of all FONOPs against China’s claims as “redundant.” What I argue is that undertaking the same FONOP challenging the exact same claim is unnecessarily provocative in an already tense environment. For example, the US has undertaken several FONOPs that challenge China’s straight baselines around the Paracels. It is decisions with respect to these geographically redundant FONOPs that should err “on the side of comity rather than hostility and antagonism” — a quote from my piece that Lan says is “not a good idea” if the US wants to deter China.
Moreover, Lan calls the contest between China and the US a “game of chicken” and says that “conducting one too many [FONOPs] is surely better than conducting one too few.” This Cold War-ish bellicose formulation is a recipe for purposeful or unintentional military confrontation. As I explained in my piece, legal non-acquiescence can be effectively and sufficiently demonstrated by verbal and written diplomatic communiqués. The diplomatic option seems to be sufficient for other nations, including maritime powers whose rights the US claims to be protecting.
Refraining from “in your face” gunboat diplomacy in favor of diplomatic protest is more consonant with the UN Charter, which states: “All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.” Indeed, according to William Aceves of California Western School of Law, “the notion that states must take action which may lead to a violent confrontation or lose their rights under international law is inconsistent with the most basic principles of international law.”
Lan’s call for military confrontation if necessary is consonant with the disdain for China’s position and the frustration with the US response displayed in AMTI Director Greg Poling’s recent piece in Foreign Affairs.
After lamenting the Philippines’ foreign policy pivot away from the US and towards China under President Rodrigo Duterte, and criticizing China’s “militarization” of features that it occupies in the South China Sea, Poling disparages what he perceives to be the tepid US response. He then offers some wishful thinking as to how the US can deter China in the South China Sea. In particular, he hopes that the Duterte government will “follow through on plans to allow upgrades at all five previously agreed-upon bases, reverse its decision to ban the storage of ammunition at them, and permit a regular schedule of US combat aircraft rotations.”
Poling also urges “the US government to publicly state that its commitment to defend Philippine troops, ships, and planes from attack under Article V of the two countries’ Mutual Defense Treaty applies to contested waters and islands in the South China Sea.” Apparently it does not matter to him whether the Philippines now wants this or not. To his continued frustration, none of this is likely to happen. This is so for a variety of reasons not the least being Duterte’s pro-China anti-US stance and the rapid decline of US soft power that it reflects. Indeed, Poling and like-minded analysts refuse to recognize that US soft power and its relationships in Southeast Asia are much shallower and more ephemeral than assumed.
The question these analysts need to address is whether they really think that the US will risk a military confrontation that could lead to war over an abstract principle (freedom of navigation).
Others have questioned the objectivity of AMTI’s activities. A July 11, 2017 Rushford Report was an “expose” entitled “How Hanoi’s Hidden Hand Helps Shape a Think Tank’s Agenda in Washington.” That report implied sub rosa bias in the organization of CSIS’s South China Sea conferences. According to Carlyle Thayer, a well-known expert on Vietnam and 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 [The Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam] 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.” AS US Senator Elizabeth Warren said regarding similar allegations against another Washington think-tank, “Think tanks play a critical role in shaping policy, but their credibility is jeopardized when decisions are based on funder preferences.”
Moreover, AMTI seems obsessed with the potential negative aspects of China’s activities in the South China Sea but generally neglects similar activities by other actors there, like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan. US military activities and capabilities vis-a-vis the South China Sea receive scant attention and mention by the AMTI.
In August 2017, Philippine Foreign Minister Alan Cayetano scolded those who criticized the presence of Chinese ships near Sandy Cay based on AMTI reports but did not criticize the presence of US warships in the disputed waters: “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.” If Southeast Asian senior officials are stating such sentiments in public, they may well be expressing more fundamental concerns in private. But it seems that the US government and some analysts are not listening.
Indeed, the US has “doubled down” on its hard power approach regarding the South China Sea. It has publicly declared China a “strategic competitor” and is cultivating defense cooperation with key countries in the region like Indonesia and Vietnam. It has also stepped up the frequency of its FONOPS. This is making some Southeast Asian countries nervous. They fear getting caught politically and kinetically between the US and China in their struggle for dominance in the region.
Ignoring these concerns, some analysts continue to support the provocative and increasingly unwelcome US military forays in the South China Sea. They condemn China’s policies and actions there while ignoring similar transgressions of others and urge even more robust US military action to deter China. The question these analysts need to address is whether they really think that the US will risk a military confrontation that could lead to war over an abstract principle (freedom of navigation). This is an especially pertinent question since China has not threatened commercial freedom of navigation and is unlikely to do so in peacetime. The US Navy knows this very well. Yet it uses commercial freedom of navigation as a red herring to distract from its peculiar and expansive interpretation of this principle to include freedom for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions off China’s coast. This broader interpretation has little support in Southeast Asia. Indeed, several countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia also have restrictions on foreign warships operating in waters under their jurisdiction without their consent.
Given these concerns, CSIS/AMTI needs to increase transparency and reassure fellow analysts and policy makers in Asia and at home that its work on the South China Sea is objective and balanced. Otherwise AMTI’s opinions and research results are likely to be ignored by the main players in the South China Sea drama.