Four months ago, I published an opinion piece in the IPP Review questioning the objectivity of Washington’s Center for Security and International Studies (CSIS) project called the Asia Maritime Security Initiative (AMTI). My concern then was that there may be anti-China bias in its selection of speakers and the agenda for its annual conferences, and more importantly, in its selection of research topics and its interpretation of the results.
I wrote that in its seemingly obsessive focus on China’s actions in the South China Sea, AMTI “largely neglects the lack of self-restraint and military activities of other claimants like the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam,” as well as by the US. AMTI has just released a report that continues to reflect this apparent bias.
Indeed, at a time when the situation in the South China Sea has somewhat relaxed, AMTI has continued its exposés of China’s actions. Some say the US President Donald J. Trump’s administration’s new National Security Policy portends a robust push back on China’s “expansionist claims in the South China Sea”. Perhaps that is what AMTI is hoping for.
Last week, there was a spate of articles in the media based on AMTI’s latest results. The essence of AMTI’s newest “revelations” is that China has continued to construct “hangars, underground storage, missile shelters, radar arrays and other facilities” on features it claims and occupies. The AMTI report alleges that “Beijing remains committed to advancing the next phase of its build-up — the construction of the infrastructure necessary for fully functioning air and naval bases on the largest outposts.”
AMTI Director Gregory Poling said that “It’s gotten off the front pages, but we shouldn’t confuse that with a softening in China’s pursuit of its goals. They are continuing all the construction they want.” This statement begs the question from objective observers as to who is meant by “we” — Americans, other claimants, fellow analysts — who?
The report also highlighted China’s deployment of new military aircraft to Woody Island in the Paracels. This is not much of a revelation given that China’s military itself announced it and released photos of the J-11 fighters deployed there. The Paracels are a completely different island group far to the north of the Spratlys. Unlike the Spratlys — which are claimed in whole or in part by 6 political entities — the Paracels are claimed only by China (and Taiwan) and Vietnam. They have long been under China’s control. The conflation of the two groups favors Vietnam’s position of wanting to include the Paracels in any “disputed area” to be governed by a “code of conduct” between China and ASEAN.
Yes, China has continued construction on features it claims and occupies. And yes, doing so is in other claimants’ eyes a violation of the provision in the non-binding Declaration of Conduct between ASEAN and China to “exercise self-restraint” in the area. But other claimants and occupiers of features have also continued construction on features they occupy there — within roughly the same time interval. All of them, including China, would argue that they have the right to undertake construction on and defend features they legitimately claim and occupy.
By not being balanced in its research and the reporting of its results, CSIS/AMTI is contributing to “bilateral bias.”
In September 2016, the South China Morning Post reported that Taiwan had built four concrete structures on its occupied Taiping Dao — the largest feature in the Spratlys. Some speculate that the structures may be used for military purposes. According to Taiwan’s Defense Minister Feng Shih-kuan “it is inconvenient for us to reveal any military facilities we are installing on Taiping Island and what their purposes are as they are all considered secrets”.
In December 2016, Vietnam was undertaking dredging on Ladd reef which it claims and occupies. In a rare admission of Vietnam’s construction activities there, Rear Admiral Le Ke Lam said: “Vietnam’s South China Sea infrastructure program was confined to minor reclamation on existing islands.” Earlier in 2016, Vietnam also reportedly deployed new missile systems on some of their occupied features. In September 2017, commercial satellite photos revealed new facilities including what may be a drydock on Vietnam-occupied West London Reef.
Then just in late November, the Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that it was upgrading military facilities on Pag-asa which it occupies. Lorenzana said: “we expect its completion by early 2018.”
So why does AMTI single out China for these “exposés”? If it is only a matter of relative scale, that is in part a function of relative capabilities. Obviously, China has much greater construction capabilities than the other claimants. But if it is a matter of principle and intent, other claimants are equally “guilty.” So the focus on China to the exclusion of the others raises the possibility that AMTI wants to demonize China and prod the US military into confronting China.
Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano downplayed the most recent AMTI report and the media hype based upon it. He said: “We’ve never said that they have stopped (building) or that there is nothing happening. What we are saying is, they are not occupying areas that are not habited meaning they are not occupying new areas. In Pag-asa we are repairing. Malaysia, Vietnam, China are repairing but everyone is saying it’s defensive.” If the foreign minister of a US ally and rival claimant to China implies that AMTI is slanting its research and results, perhaps it is time that CSIS/AMTI evaluated its research for bias.
By not being balanced in its research and the reporting of its results, CSIS/AMTI is contributing to “bilateral bias.” According to Australian analyst Michael Beckley, such bias can skew “US priorities in East Asia by creating the false impression that every Chinese move must be countered with a vigorous assertion of American power. More importantly bilateral bias encourages the US military to adopt offensive doctrines that increase the likelihood of a US-China war.”
Systematic AMTI bias tarnishes CSIS’s reputation and makes AMTI’s results and analyses suspect. As I urged in my previous article: “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.” To do so, it needs to broaden the scope and balance of its research and analysis.
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China’s Construction at Spratlys Still a Cause for Alarm. (December 17, 2017). The Manila Times.
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