By Michael Walsh
“Asia Matters for America” is a longstanding series of reports that provide “visually easy-to-understand data, graphics, analysis, and information on the U.S.-Indo-Pacific relationship.”
Produced by the East-West Center in Washington, these reports are designed to help “policymakers, politicians, business leaders, academics, media and the general public” make sense of U.S. relations in the Indo-Pacific region. They are intended to do so through “nonpartisan, credible and up-to-date information on diplomacy, policy, trade, investment, and educational and cultural exchanges.”
This year, the East-West Center published a new report in the series on the Pacific Islands. Funded by the Office of Insular Affairs, this report is supposed to give a primer on “the trade, investment, employment, business, diplomacy, security, education, tourism and people-to-people connections between the United States and the Pacific island countries.”
Here, the authors set out to make the case that Pacific island countries matter to America, and vice versa. One of the key pieces of evidence that they use to back-up their argument is that American cities maintain eight sister city partnerships with five Pacific Island Countries. Unfortunately, this claim is based on contradictory and questionable premises.
Digging deeper into the report, the contradictions become apparent.
Whereas the authors claim that there are eight partnerships with five island nations, they only provide a table with six of them. As for the rest, they note that Hawaii “also shares two connections with the U.S. territories of American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.”
The math simply does not add up. Either these American territories must count as sovereign states or two of the sister city partnerships must be missing from the report.
The other problems are less obvious.
Last week, I thought that the mainland partnerships would make a good feature for the Center on Public Diplomacy. So, I set out to do some background research on the Compton, Des Plaines, Gilroy, Neoshoa nd Oceanside ones.
When I reviewed official websites, I was surprised to find scant mention of these partnerships.
On the Oceanside website, I found a page dedicated to sister cities. It listed cities in China, Ireland, Greece, Japan, Mexico, Montenegro, and the Philippines. However, there was no mention of one in Samoa.
On the other websites, I encountered more problems. The Gilroy website references a regular advisory meeting with the Gilroy Sister City Association. Their website has a page dedicated to a partnership with Koror. However, it fails to mention recent sister city activities. On the Compton, Des Plaines, and Neosho websites, I found nothing of relevance.
When I reached out to city officials, I was in for even more surprises. Their responses suggested the partnerships with A’ana, Apia, Koror and Nailuva actually don’t seem to matter all that much.
In Gilroy, the president of the Gilroy Sister Cities Association, Hugh Smith, confirmed that the city officially still has a “sister city relationship with Koror,” but that “has been inactive for many years.” He shared that they had sent “a letter to that effect” to their Koror counterparts over a decade ago. However, they “got no reply.” He added, “I doubt if anyone there is even aware of it.” So, what does this mean? In Smith’s words, “For all intents and purposes … we don't have a real sister city in Koror.”
Outside of Gilroy, the story appears to be murkier. A Compton official said that they didn’t recall any recent activities with Apia. A Des Plaines official responded, “I’ve done some research internally and as far as I can tell we do not have an active partnership with any sister cities at this moment.” An Oceanside official acknowledged, “no, we do not have a sister city relationship with A’ana.”
These findings left me shaking my head.
East West Center seems to have accidentally published inaccurate, or at least misleading, information in their flagship publication on U.S.-Pacific islands relations. And, that should concern American policymakers.
First, these findings bring into question whether the center’s report is a reliable source. One of the key factors in being able to persuade others that something matters is one’s perceived credibility.
When it becomes known that an institution has published inaccurate or misleading information on a particular topic, people will start to question more than the expertise and trustworthiness of the authors of that publication.
They will question the credibility of their employer and funder as well. To restore their trust, American policymakers should not only demand that all “Asia Matters for America” reports be fact-checked post haste. They should require strong fact-checking safeguards be put in place on future research projects funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Second, this incident begs the question of whether the United States has a large enough bench of experts on Pacific affairs. One of the key strategies for winning any argument is to avoid the fallacy of questionable premises.
This exists whenever an argument is based on questionable or unlikely to be acceptable premises. To expose such a fallacy, one has to possess sufficient background information to know that a premise being advanced is questionable or unlikely to be acceptable.
In this case, that body of knowledge is Pacific Affairs. Without it, a faulty argument can go unnoticed like this one. To avoid a repeat, American policymakers need to invest in broadening and deepening the bench of American experts. This will require strengthening regional studies departments at universities, improving regional coverage at media outlets, expanding regional programs in think tanks, and creating more regional programs at nonprofits. This is how you create more fact-checkers on the issue. Of course, that will take time. In the interim, Aussie and Kiwi policymakers could fill the gap.
We ought to hold those who we trust to produce facts about the Pacific Islands Region to a high standard. Here, that standard was not met.
However, it is important to recognize that no one is perfect when it comes to writing about regional affairs. Not academics. Not bureaucrats. Not journalists. Not policy wonks. We all make mistakes. And, we actually make them quite often. That’s why we need safeguards like editors and reviewers. They help to protect our reputations. Here, those safeguards unfortunately seem to have broken down.