ISSN 2330-717X

Washington Think Tank Continues To Get South China Sea Issues Wrong – OpEd

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The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies “is an interactive, regularly-updated source for information, analysis, and policy exchange on maritime security issues in Asia.” https://amti.csis.org/about/ It “aims to promote transparency in the Indo-Pacific to dissuade assertive behavior and conflict and generate opportunities for cooperation and confidence building.” Although it claims “to provide an objective platform for exchange”, its analysis regarding the South China Sea disputes is often biased and sometimes draws incorrect conclusions Indeed, AMTI has established a pattern and reputation in this regard.

The most recent example has become the target of strong denials and criticism from Philippine government officials. On March 5 AMTI released a report alleging that Chinese fishing boats and maritime militia have harassed and intimidated Filipino vessels supporting construction on Philippines-claimed and occupied Thitu, thus contributing to the delay in the work’s completion. 

But Philippines Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana flat out rejected his allegation. https://www.msn.com/en-ph/news/national/lorenzana-presence-of-chinese-vessels-in-pag-asa-island-never-interfere-with-the-ongoing-rehab/ar-BB110VEH?li=BBr8RiR  He explained that geology and rough seas were responsible for the delay.  The goals of the construction were a beaching ramp and improvement of the runway.  But the surrounding seabed was “so hard” that it required drilling equipment for the construction of the beach ramp. And the runway repairs required heavy equipment that could only be delivered when the beaching ramp was complete and in a narrow window of good weather.  Lorenzana remarked “I do not know where AMTI’s allegation came from.  It’s totally false.”  He added that there are “always” Chinese ships in the vicinity of Pag-asa [Thitu] Island [but] “they have never in any way interfered with the rehabilitation of the island.” China also claims Thitu as well as nearby Sandy Cay and their attendant 12 nautical mile territorial seas and the presence of its fishing boats around them is to be expected. What they are doing and why is open to speculation and AMTI has apparently assumed the worst.  

This is certainly not the first time AMTI has demonstrated its bias on this issue.  In February 2019, AMTI precipitated a media brouhaha regarding an alleged specific instance of China’s intimidation of the Philippines in the South China Sea.  The media circus began on 6 February when AMTI published and heavily promoted a report that documented Philippines construction on Thitu and alleged that China had attempted to intimidate the Philippines into ceasing that work. The analysis re-enforced the US narrative that China is ‘militarizing’ the South China Sea disputes and threatening other claimants, as well as freedom of navigation through the sea lanes. Philippines opposition politicians, pundits and some public media clamored for the government to defend the nation’s territory from the ‘impending Chinese onslaught’.

But the AMTI report had the rare distinction of being criticized by the country it was trying to alert to nefarious activity against it —the Philippines –-and the country it was warning against—China. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson said that AMTI’s ‘revelation’ was just “speculation”. https://globalnation.inquirer.net/172484/palace-report-about-chinese-militia-on-spratlys-just-speculation

A rebuttal to the AMTI report also appeared in the Chinese government-influenced Global Times, accusing AMTI of manufacturing a “phantom crisis” and offered alternative explanations for the congregation of Chinese vessels in that area. It argued that based on the published satellite images, AMTI came to the wrong conclusion. http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1139188.shtm

 AMTI research does seem overly focused on the negative aspects of China’s activities in the South China Sea while generally neglecting similar activities by other actors there– like Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan. It also gives little if any attention to US military activities and capabilities vis a vis the South China Sea.

Others have also questioned AMTI’s objectivity.  A 11 July 2017 Rushford Report http://rushfordreport.com/?p=467 entitled “How Hanoi’s Hidden Hand Helps Shape a Think Tank’s Agenda in Washington” implied sub rosa bias in the organization of CSIS’s South China Sea conferences.  Carlyle Thayer, a well known expert on Vietnam and the South China Sea said that ” 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”.

 AMTI’s selective focus was revealed by a recent report from the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) at Peking University. In an ironic twist, it used similar techniques to AMTI to show that many Vietnamese fishing boats were operating illegally in China’s internal and territorial waters and its undisputed Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around Hainan and the nearby Mainland. https://scspi.pku.edu.cn/en/analysis/501624.htm 

It also claimed that many of these vessels “could be maritime militia.”  The evidence it cited was the concentrations of Vietnamese vessels near China’s strategic Yulin Naval Base and the allegation that some “changed their status from “fishing vessel” to “merchant ship” on their Automatic Identification System (ASI) transponders.  However there are alternative explanations for this ‘evidence’. The vessels may be concentrated where the fish are and the vessels that tuned off or modified their ASI knew they were fishing illegally and were trying to avoid detection.  Indeed, SCSPI’s speculation carries about as much weight as AMTI’s allegation.  But if does demonstrate the dangers of drawing conclusions beyond the limits of the data. More important, it also shows AMTI’s neglect of the problem of illegal fishing by others in China’s waters or those of other South China Sea countries..  There is certainly no shortage of targets.  Indonesia and Malaysia have repeatedly complained about and arrested many Vietnamese fishing vessels in their claimed EEZs.

AMTI’s topics of analysis continue to be biased against China and its conclusions extend well beyond the limits of the data. Although one of AMTI’s purported goals is to “generate opportunities for cooperation and confidence building_ _”, it seems to be doing the opposite.

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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