By Greg Rushford

 Next Tuesday, July 18, will be another big day for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which has been one of Washington’s most prestigious think tanks for more than a half century. The Seventh Annual CSIS South China Sea Conference, as have its previous incarnations dating to 2011, will once again draw public attention to Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. Speakers with impressive national security credentials will be flown in from Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, and elsewhere in Asia. They will be joined by leading American authorities from such respected institutions as the U.S. Naval War College and its Center for Naval Warfare Studies. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee’s Asian panel, will kick off the day with a speech on “Renewing American Leadership in the Asia-Pacific.”

So who has been generously paying for conferences aimed at encouraging the importance of renewing American leadership in Asia? CSIS President and CEO John Hamre has been ducking the question for the past six years. Last July, for instance, CSIS informed the public that its sixth annual South China Sea conference had been “made possible by general support to CSIS.”

That’s not only too vague to convey real meaning, but a flat-out “misrepresentation,” according to a source who prefers to remain anonymous. To substantiate that charge, the source has provided me internal “Confidential” CSIS documents that show exactly where the money has been coming from.

The memoranda, e-mails, and other records reveal that Hamre has had a secret angel — in Hanoi.

And the angel has had an important say in who has been invited to the annual CSIS maritime conferences, and who hasn’t. CSIS’s secret benefactor is an arm of Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The unit, called the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, reports to Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh and the Communist Party, according to it’s official website. Pham Binh Minh, currently Vietnam’s deputy prime minister, is a senior Party member who has served as foreign minister since 2011.

Since 2012, Vietnam’s government has given CSIS more than $450,000 to hold the annual South China Sea conferences. Over the years, CSIS has added another $55,000 from the think tank’s internal accounts, the sources of which are not identified in the documents I have been shown. CSIS chief Hamre declined to respond to persistent requests for his comment.

Questions about transparency

This is not the first time that questions have been raised in the press about CSIS and shadowy contributions from foreign sources. On September 7, 2014, for instance, the New York Times published an article headlined “Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks.” Reporters Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams and Nicholas Confessore tracked millions of dollars from foreign governments that have been flowing into influential Washington think tanks, including CSIS, in recent years. The murky money “has set off troubling questions about intellectual freedom,” they noted, citing instances of scholars whose opinions seemed to be unduly influenced by financial considerations.

In response to the inquiries from the Times, CSIS agreed to release a list of more than a dozen foreign government donors including Japan, Sweden and Turkey. But the disclosure from CSIS chief Hamre was semi-transparent at best. CSIS “declined to disclose details of its contracts with those nations or actual donation amounts,” the newspaper reported.

Currently, the CSIS website discloses eleven foreign governmental donors. The United Arab Emirates, for instance, has contributed “$500,000 and up,” for unspecified “regional studies.” Saudi Arabia and Turkey have chipped somewhere between $100,000 – $499,999,” again unspecified. And donations between $5,000 – $99,999 have come from five other governments including Kazakhstan and Germany. No contributions are now listed from the government of Vietnam.

Hanoi’s Hidden Hand

That some Vietnamese money has been given to CSIS, however, is noted elsewhere on the CSIS site — tucked away under gifts received from 48 foundations, non-governmental organizations, and “Nonprofit Donors.” The Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam is listed as having donated at least $5,000 to CSIS, but not more than $99,999. What the DAV is, or what the money was intended for, other than the usual unspecified “regional studies,” is not disclosed.

There is nothing anywhere on the CSIS site to indicate that the DAV is an official arm of Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Nothing to suggest that the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam advises the foreign minister “in the formulation, planning and implementation of the foreign policy of the State,” as it notes on its own website. To glean that DAV also participates in “academic exchanges” with research institutions, inside Vietnam and overseas, one has to go to the DAV website, where CSIS is not mentioned.

The official connections between CSIS officials and the Vietnamese government, according to the documentation I have been shown, date to April 25, 2012. That’s the day the first memorandum of understanding between CSIS and a Vietnamese diplomat was inked. Ernest Bower signed on behalf of CSIS as the think tank’s senior adviser and director of its Southeast Asia Program. Since 2011, Bower has also been the president and CEO of the BowerGroupAsia, an international consulting firm that has offices in Vietnam and other Asian countries.

Tung Nguyen Vu, who in 2012 was the deputy chief of mission of the Vietnamese embassy in Washington, signed on behalf of DAV. Hanoi contributed $129,236 to hold the second CSIS conference that July. CSIS added another $20,000.

Diplomat Tung — who is also referred to as Nguyen Vu Tung — is now a senior official with DAV; he appeared on a panel at the 2016 CSIS South China Sea conference, held last July 12. And at next Tuesday’s seventh CSIS event, Dang Cam Tu, the deputy director of the DAV’s Institute for Strategic Studies, will appear on a panel moderated by CSIS senior adviser Murray Hiebert.

Conflicted interests

Hiebert is also a senior adviser to the BowerGroupAsia. His work as a private business consultant does not appear on his CSIS bio, nor does he does not disclose his corporate affiliations in his public CSIS appearances. Hiebert has declined to explain his dual roles, and CSIS chief Hamre and the think tank’s board of directors have also remained silent.

In 2015 Hiebert admitted that a CSIS study on U.S.-Vietnam relations he had co-authored had been paid for by the Vietnamese government — a fact that the published study had not disclosed. Hiebert has drawn previous attention for his unwillingness to offer critical analysis of Vietnam’s tarnished human-rights record. He once even summoned a security guard escort a prominent Vietnamese-American pro-democracy advocate from the CSIS premises, after being pressured to do so by Vietnamese security officials. (For further details, see How Hanoi Buys Influence in Washington, D.C., and Obama’s Vietnam ‘Legacy’ Trip: A Reality Check, on www.rushfordreport.com.)

These days Vietnam’s chief paymaster to CSIS is Tran Truong Thuy. Thuy is a veteran DAV official who has been involved with the annual CSIS maritime conferences since the first one in 2011. On July 11, 2016, Thuy signed the confidential CSIS memo of understanding which set the budget for last year’s conference. He was then wearing another hat: director of the Foundation for East Sea Studies.

FESS describes itself on its website as a non-profit that DAV and senior Vietnamese diplomats launched in 2014. FESS and the DAV share the same address in Hanoi. FESS’s mission is basically to explain to domestic and international audiences the Vietnamese government’s positions on its maritime disputes with China. The short explanation of the bureaucratic arrangements: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — and ultimately the Communist Party — calls the shots for both DAV and FESS.

Last year’s CSIS conference budget was typical of its predecessors. The Vietnamese agreed to pay $94,935 of the total costs of $104,935. CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative chipped in the other $10,000. The money was to be used to pay for CSIS staffers’ time spent on the event, travel and hotel costs from various Asian locations for invited speakers, and other conference costs such as those associated with meals and printing documents. CSIS agreed, as it had in previous years, to send all of the receipts to Hanoi.

While the contractual arrangements with Hanoi specified that both CSIS and the Vietnamese would “together draft the agenda and the list of participants,” CSIS also asserted its rights to full editorial independence and its “total discretion and final decision-making authority.”

Those rights were put to the test in the days before last year’s conference, which was held on July 12, 2016. That same day, an international tribunal in The Hague issued a ruling that determined that China has been acting in violation of its international legal obligations by destroying coral reefs to build weaponized artificial islands in waters with the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone — putting both Manila and Hanoi in range of Chinese jet bombers.

The Paymasters’ Power Play

Given the likelihood of intense public interest in the wake of the tribunal’s ruling, CSIS staffers Murray Hiebert and Greg Poling asked China’s ambassador in Washington, Cui Tiankai, to speak at the conference. Considering the beating that Beijing would be taking that day in light of the legal ruling, Hiebert and Poling thought that was only fair, and said so in their e-mail correspondence.

Poling informed Thuy on July 7 that he had heard from the Chinese embassy, and that Cui was willing to speak.

Thuy hit the roof.

“Murray, we cannot agree with the way you handle the conference,” the Vietnamese diplomat informed Hiebert in one July 8, 2016 e-mail. “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 shot back: “Our goal is not to create a form for Chinese propaganda, but to create a credible forum that shows China’s unacceptable behavior in the SCS [South China Sea]. Amb Cui won’t convince anyone that justice is on his side. Allowing him to speak will give our all day event and the event’s sharp criticism of China much more credibility without detracting from our message.”

Finally, after the flurry of e-mails with the CSIS staffers had reached an impasse, Thuy put his foot down. “Murray, not allowing Chinese Amb to deliver his speech is not only my personal opinion but a strict requirement from our ‘sponsors’ and I don’t have chance to convince them anymore.”

Faced with the implacable attitude of the men with the money in Hanoi, Hiebert and Poling crafted a compromise position. “Thuy, Amb. Cui will not speak at the SCS conference tomorrow,” Hiebert informed his Vietnamese benefactor on July 11. “Instead, he will speak later in the day after the conference has ended at the invitation of the China Power Program, which is not related to the SE Asia program that organized the conference.”

As Hiebert had promised Thuy, the July 12 conference that the Vietnamese government had paid for adjourned at 4:30 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, at 4:45 p.m., the Chinese ambassador delivered his remarks, which were live-streamed.

 Enter Irony — and Moral- and Intellectual Failures

There is an irony to this story. CSIS has earned genuine respect in leading foreign-affairs circles for its success in focusing the American public’s attention on China’s misconduct in the South China Sea. The rub is the evasiveness concerning who was paying the bills. That has been compounded by the business affiliations of CSIS officials who were raising money from the Vietnamese government at the same time they were promoting private business dealings in Vietnam.

Readers will draw their own conclusions as to what the Vietnamese government has gotten for its money. During the years covered in this article, Vietnam’s agenda in Washington has had several key parts. Hanoi wanted to create a climate of opinion to foster a closer diplomatic and security relationship with the United States. CSIS analysts also wanted that. The Vietnamese wanted President Barack Obama to visit Vietnam, to help deepen the relationship. CSIS also advocated that trip. Hanoi wanted Washington to lift its ban on the sale of lethal arms to the communist regime. CSIS analysts shared that part of the agenda also. And Vietnam wanted American support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. CSIS was on the same page.

To be sure, CSIS officials could plausibly argue that the agenda they have been pressing on behalf of better U.S.-Vietnamese relations was reasonable.

But there’s more to this story that raises troubling questions. Above everything else, the Vietnamese government has wanted foreign policy elites in Washington to avert their eyes on Hanoi’s gross violations of human rights. The Communist Party sees its very survival as dependent upon its continued ability to suppress even peaceable dissent. And as I have reported previously in How Hanoi Buys Influence and Obama’s Vietnam Legacy Trip, John Hamre, Ernie Bower, Murray Hiebert, and Greg Poling have been careful not to cause undo offense to the powers in Hanoi when awkward questions about political prisoners have arisen.

To refuse to speak out when courageous Vietnamese citizens are imprisoned merely for peaceable exercising their universal rights to free speech is surely a moral failure.

And there’s also an intellectual failure. Vietnam, a member of the United Nations, is a signatory to various international legal instruments that guarantee its citizens universal freedoms of speech and expression. Any analyst who criticizes China for flouting international law in the South China Sea surely is obligated to point out that Vietnam’s continuing persecution of some of its best citizens also is in violation of accepted UN international legal norms.

Except, perhaps, if there is money to be made by looking away.