|Lessons Learned from a Year at AMTI
By Mira Rapp-Hooper
It has been quite an eventful inaugural year for the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. CSIS’s leadership began with an idea to establish a website that would act as a public lens through which to examine maritime and territorial issues in the Asia-Pacific region. AMTI would serve as an objective resource for data and would help to dissuade the use of coercion and promote cooperation in the region. Since its launch, the project has shifted shape as events in maritime Asia have unfolded. As I prepare to depart from CSIS, I am honored to have the opportunity to share just three of the many lessons I have learned while at the helm of AMTI.
Facts Do Have a Voice. Because CSIS wanted to create an objective platform for information, we knew that it was vital that the project not take positions on the region’s long-simmering sovereignty disputes, or privilege the narrative of any particular claimant. This type of scholarly neutrality certainly has a place in academic books and articles, but would it work on a website? So often, web traffic is driven by salacious headlines and polemic arguments. I worried that we would have trouble finding an audience that was interested in “just the facts”—particularly given how contentious maritime and territorial disputes can be. We quickly learned, however, that there was a broad appetite for reliable information in this space. AMTI’s most successful features have consistently been those that are comparative and data-rich: our special issue on airpower and airstrips in the South China Sea, or our Island Tracker page, for example. Facts do speak for themselves.
The Old Adage is True… A picture is worth at least 1,000 words! We designed the AMTI website with the hope that we could contribute to the policy debate by helping our users to visualize what exactly was at stake in maritime Asia. At the project’s inception, this meant creating original maps and novel infographics, but we did not foresee just how important visuals would become. As the expert community grew increasingly concerned about land reclamation in the South China Sea, we looked for ways to make this uncommon and esoteric issue accessible to a broader audience. Our partnership with DigitalGlobe has been one of the most exciting parts of the project so far. Because of the availability of commercial satellite imagery, developments that take place at sea can be seen around the world in a matter of days, and can facilitate and focus objective analysis and policy discourse. This relationship between imagery and policy has applications far beyond the Asia-Pacific region. Wherever pressing political issues involve change over time to a land feature, body of water, or visible structure, open-source imagery can make clear and accessible otherwise-inscrutable phenomena.
Transparency is Welcome…and not Just in Washington… AMTI’s mission depends on buy-in from scholars, government officials, and the general public in Asia. Perhaps the most rewarding part of my job has been the opportunity to work with leading scholars in the region to produce AMTI’s biweekly analysis. These thought-leaders have consistently used their subject matter expertise and national perspectives to advance the global policy debate and have taught me a great deal in the process. I have also been privileged to work with officials from numerous governments in the region, as they have reached out to AMTI to contribute policy documents to our Documents Library, in an effort to help our users understand the region’s complex maritime history. Finally, I have been thrilled to see AMTI develop a significant regional user base. While a substantial portion of AMTI readers hail from the United States, almost as many are based in China. The website also has a sizeable following in the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, Australia, Singapore, and India, despite the fact that it is only available in English. The need for confidence-building agreements is as acute as it has ever been, but deep regional engagement at all three of these levels gives one hope for the future of dispute management—particularly those mechanisms that have a central role for transparency and information-sharing.
As I bid farewell to AMTI, I am grateful to my friends and colleagues at CSIS who helped to build, support, and maintain this project with great skill and passion. In particular, Mike Green’s leadership and commitment to AMTI’s mission has been formidable. As AMTI enters its next phase, I know that the project will continue evolve and to respond to regional events in innovative ways. I am grateful to have been a part of this dynamic project for its first year of life and look forward to seeing where the quest for regional transparency takes AMTI next.