Washington’s Center for Security and International Studies (CSIS) 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. On July 11, 2017, The Rushford Report posted an “expose” entitled “How Hanoi’s Hidden Hand Helps Shape a Think Tank’s Agenda in Washington” 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 and 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 its agenda, its Seventh Annual South China Sea Conference in July 2017 was organized by the CSIS’s Southeast Asia Program and the AMTI. No other organizers or funders were listed. Speakers or facilitators from the US were quite high level, including 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 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 may be calling the tune.”
Rushford then 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].” That statement seems to 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 AMTI purports to “promote transparency in the Indo-Pacific to dissuade assertive behavior and conflict and generate opportunities for cooperation and confidence building. 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 they do not research and as well as by their interpretation of their results. In its seemingly obsessive focus on China, until the Rushford report came out, AMTI largely neglects the “lack of self-restraint” and “military activities” of other claimants like Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
But it is the US — not China — that militarily dominates the South China Sea. Nevertheless, US military activities there receive scant attention and mention by the AMTI. A more balanced analysis would pay more attention to the military capabilities and activities of the US and others there — in addition to those of China.
Philippines Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano 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.”
Although the AMTI reports accuse China of “militarizing” the features it occupies, they do not mention that there is a disagreement as to the definition of “militarization” as well as regarding who is doing it. China apparently doesn’t consider defensive installations “militarization.” All the claimants to and occupiers of Spratly features — China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam — “militarized” them years ago, before China started doing so. Indeed, all have stationed military personnel on the features they occupy and built airstrips and harbors that have accommodated military aircraft and vessels. Moreover, all, including China, have the right to defend its facilities on the features they legitimately claim. China has indeed been enhancing its defenses on the features it occupies. So have Taiwan and Vietnam; and now the Philippines plans to do so as well.
But a more germane question is why hasn’t the AMTI probed and “revealed” the bigger picture regarding “militarization” of the South China Sea? With the pivot, the US has clearly increased its military presence in the region. Indeed, the US — unlike China — already has military “places” in Southeast Asia — in its military allies the Philippines and Thailand — and more recently has persuaded other countries 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.
Further, in China’s view, the US has militarized the situation by provocatively “projecting power.” Even the Indonesian government has expressed disapproval over US “power projection” in the South China Sea. Referring to the October 2015 US Lassen FONOP near China-occupied Subi Reef, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan said, “We disagree, we don’t like any power projection.”
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 “the bad guy” and 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.” But the AMTI Director said 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.” But there are 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.
In a report on August 9, AMTI disputed Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s and Philippines Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano’s claim that China was no longer reclaiming land in the Spratlys. 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 a report on August 17, the AMTI “revealed” that there was a group of Chinese fishing vessels and two law enforcement ships near the Philippine-claimed and -occupied feature it called Pag-asa (also known as Thitu). 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 Alan Peter Cayetano 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.
Given these possible shortcomings, 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 higher-level speakers from Asia and US analysts with more divergent views to the next South China Sea Conference and by broadening the scope and balance of its research and analysis.