Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. His ministry has announced sanctions against Western think-tanks perceived as biased against China. Photo: AFP

China’s sanctions on the prominent Washington-based think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has prompted a great wringing of hands. While I empathize with those affected, I do take issue with some of their specific concerns.

The proximate reason for the sanctions – which may extend to individuals – is thought to be an opinion piece by four CSIS researchers in support of the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), which itself was sanctioned by China.

Global Times claimed MERICS “has actually been colluding with anti-China forces over the years since it was established in 2013” and was sanctioned not only because of its research but because “it is the largest Chinese research center in … Europe. Cutting off ties with China means its research channel will hardly be sustainable and its influence will be critically hit.” Perhaps that is the intent of the sanctions on CSIS and at least four other US think-tanks that have achieved the same “distinction.”

Apparently MERICS’ cardinal sin in Beijing’s eyes was to support the claim that China is engaged in genocide in Xinjiang. This is a controversial allegation, and all sides of the issue should be examined by objective analysts. As for the article published by CSIS, it should have been possible to “stand with MERICS” while maintaining distance from such a controversial claim.

Nevertheless, I get it. For Western scholars it hurts in a personal visceral way. State bans on research institutions and individual scholars because of their views attacks the basic premise of a “free society.” It also potentially disrupts or damages the careers of many who will have to analyze their chosen country of focus remotely and in isolation from primary sources.

However, Western analysts might have anticipated that the Chinese government would lash out against attacks that could affect its hold on power. As Shi Yinhong, director of the American Studies Institute at Renmin University, explains, “You have to make Chinese people believe that the Chinese government, the central committee of the CCP, is the best defender of China’s national interests and honor.”

As one analyst put it, Beijing apparently decided that it is “better to lose friends but look strong than to show weakness and threaten public legitimacy at home.”

This is not to justify China’s actions or to suggest that the authors of the concerned article should have refrained from voicing their opinions. It is an attempt to delineate the reasons for the present situation.

The door to “genuine scholarly exchange” has been closing for some time. Indeed, this latest backlash goes with the territory of being an expert on a country that the US has designated a strategic competitor and a threat to the US-led international order – and, some believe, the very “American way of life.”

US-China ”competition” has become for many – and even some analysts – a clash of ideologies generating dysfunctional mistrust and suspicion on both sides.

Let’s face it. The US and China are engaged in a soft-power war. They are vying for the hearts and minds of Asia and in particular the countries surrounding the South China Sea. It should come as no surprise that this war or its effects have spilled over into the sphere of education and research, even targeting individual scholars.

This sad situation has been building for some time. Both countries have been monitoring (harassing) individuals sub rosa for decades. But public US government China-bashing reached a crescendo under president Donald Trump and his secretary of state Mike Pompeo. According to Pompeo, “China has sent propagandists into our press conferences, our research centers, our high-schools and colleges.”

Now this focus on individual Chinese in academia and their affiliated home institutions has been continued under President Joe Biden. US Senator Mark Warner told the Brookings Institution, “I have been convening meetings between the intelligence community and outside stakeholders in business and academia to ensure they have the full threat picture and, hopefully, make different decisions about Chinese partnerships.”

Chinese students are under particular suspicion and those studying in particular science and technology fields must undergo additional screening, sometimes resulting in delayed visas.

Republicans introduced legislation in the US House of Representatives and Senate that would deny visas to Chinese researchers affiliated with Chinese military institutions. US intelligence agencies are now encouraging American research universities to develop protocols for monitoring students and visiting scholars from Chinese state-affiliated research institutions – which includes some of the leading research institutions in China.

Many US educational institutions and think-tanks – particularly those inside the Washington Beltway – have been silent or even complicit as this “China-phobia” has swept the nation. In such a political environment, it is not surprising that fear and mistrust have spilled over into civil society and academia. Both sides share responsibility for this sad state of affairs.

The authors of the CSIS piece at the center of this imbroglio say that “Chinese officials now routinely and publicly criticize researchers whose work they do not agree with.” But do they really think that US think-tanks do not engage in blocking and blacklisting?

I believe I and some like-minded colleagues have been denied invitations to conferences and publishing opportunities by individuals at establishment think-tanks because of our contrarian views and affiliations with China think-tanks. I don’t like it. I think such institutions and US policy decisions suffer from not considering views contrary to the stove piped conventional view. But I accept the risk as part of my chosen contrarian academic “territory” in these times.

I learned the hard way during the Vietnam War era that contrary to idealistic notions, the exercise of free speech has consequences. Perhaps it is time these analysts recognized this reality rather than bemoaning their fate.

The CSIS article’s authors greatly overestimate the value and influence of academic input to decisions in both governments.

Decision-makers in both systems and their numerous government advisers understand their adversaries and their intentions very well based on personal interaction and public diplomacy. They just fundamentally disagree. That is the reality, and no amount of academic interchange is going to change that. In fact, familiarity may be breeding contempt.

As for generating greater understanding, many academics on both sides simply echo or justify their government’s views. Rather than help countries avoid conflict, they often facilitate or amplify it. Indeed, contrary to welcoming “the perspectives of our Chinese counterparts,” I have personally witnessed many times American analysts and even officials rudely confronting and embarrassing Chinese scholars and officials, bashing them with US-centric views.

There is an assumption in the CSIS piece that China has banned all citizens from access to the sanctioned institutions’ websites. The dangers feared by the authors – global isolation, missteps, overreach based on faulty assumptions – may be mitigated by allowing an inner core continued access to contrarian views.

Indeed, I suspect that decision-makers and their advisers maintain such access. The ban is probably aimed at opposition netizens who can use criticism of the government to foment unrest that benefits the US.

The West cannot hope explicitly or implicitly to impose its values on China. Indeed, to do so would be to undermine and contribute to the collapse of China’s government. That may be what the Chinese government thinks is the intent of some analysts and it is thus defending itself with preventive action.

Moreover, there is a big difference between objective analysis and that based on implicit assumptions that further a particular country’s interests. For CSIS, which collaborates with MERICS, this article may have only been the straw that broke the Chinese camel’s back.

Critics have been pointing out CSIS bias against China for years – to no avail. A prime example has been CSIS’ Asia Maritime Transparency Institute (AMTI). It has been accused of bias by Asian and Western researchers both in its research focus and in its conclusions.

AMTI analysis has reinforced 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. Absent has been an acknowledgement of the broader context of American militarization of the area and similar violations of principle by other claimants.

One AMTI report had the rare distinction of being criticized by the country it was trying to alert to alleged nefarious activity against it – the Philippines – and the country it was warning against – China. Based on this analysis, Filipino opposition politicians, pundits and some public media clamored for the government to defend the nation’s territory from the “impending Chinese onslaught.”

But Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman said AMTI’s “revelation” was just “speculation.” Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana said, “I do not know where AMTI’s allegation came from. It’s totally false.”

Others have also questioned AMTI’s objectivity. A July 11, 2017, Rushford Report titled “How Hanoi’s Hidden Hand Helps Shape a Think Tank’s Agenda in Washington” implied sub rosa bias in the organization of CSIS’ South China Sea conferences. Carlyle Thayer, a well-known expert on Vietnam and the South China Sea, said he had lost “confidence in both the CSIS and DAV” (Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam).

A similar scenario involving AMTI recently played out regarding the gathering of Chinese vessels at the Philippines-claimed Whitsun Reef. Driving a wedge between the Philippines and China would be in the strategic interest of the US. This may be what the Chinese government and even some in the Philippines view as the ulterior motive of AMTI/CSIS.

Lost amid the fear of damage to their own institutions and careers is concern for the chilling effect of this soft-power war on Chinese scholars and students – particularly those with broad and deep Western ties.

I have been interacting with Chinese academics for almost half a century. I have seen them and their successor generation open and close like flowers depending on the political “light.” Caution has always been there, and now it is again dominant.

Indeed, I have observed a recent growing self-restraint by formerly outspoken scholars and an increasing reticence to interact with their Western colleagues, particularly those who publicly criticize China. This is a natural response to the spreading and deepening mistrust.

To close, I respond to the authors’ red herring that “If China’s precondition for stable relations with the West is that scholars all agree with Beijing’s position on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, other ‘red lines,’ and its broader narrative … then China is unfortunately choosing to close the door to genuine scholarly exchange.”

I would argue that if the US and its analysts think that Chinese scholars must agree to continued American hegemony in Asia and the South China Sea as a precondition for discussions of the issues, then they are “closing the door to genuine scholarly exchange” – as well as to peace and stability in the region.

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.