Despite mounting tensions in geopolitics and the global economic arena, Chinese President Xi Jinping's recent encounter with U.S. President Donald Trump was not just a boon for the leaders of the world's largest economies. It also signaled a tailwind for students who are investing time in forming links between the two countries.
Over 300,000 Chinese students are currently studying in the United States, while 15,000 to 20,000 of their American counterparts are studying in China, according to American Mandarin Society (AMS).
Nathaniel Ahrens, Director of China Affairs at the University of Maryland and Executive Director of the AMS, told Beijing Review that ever since the normalization of relations in 1979, education has been the ballast of the U.S.-China relationship.
"In addition to robust student exchange, there are numerous academic exchanges that happen between researchers and academic faculty in the two countries. These international linkages, combined with open, unhindered research, are critical to innovation," said Ahrens.
In spite of that, China and the United States had been at loggerheads before the Xi-Trump meeting over various issues including perceived trade imbalances, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and the denuclearization efforts of the Korean Peninsula. The future of Sino-American educational relations hangs in the balance of ongoing developments in those areas of contention.
Li Daokui, a professor of economics at Tsinghua University, talks with Yale University President Peter Salovey on the sidelines of the China Development Forum 2017 in Beijing on March 18 (XINHUA)
Hopes and challenges
The opportunity to bring Chinese and other international students—including American students—together is vital to enhancing international understanding, claimed Carla Freeman, Director of the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Freeman, also the Director of the China Studies Program, told Beijing Review that the ability to have and sustain important shared educational experiences rests on healthy relations between countries.
"If diplomatic strains between China and the United States, for example, become too great, the flows of students across the Pacific could be disrupted. Currently, the economies of the U.S. and China are economically interwoven, so both countries gain from having young Americans and young Chinese learn about each other's societies."
Trump's policies have already created an undertow of uncertainty for international academicians working and studying in the United States. A March 2 article from the science journal Nature states that researchers from various countries are reducing travel to and ending collaborations and rethinking their ties with the U.S.
"Maintaining free and open, two-way educational exchange between the countries should be a top priority for both administrations," said Ahrens.
The hard part will be maintaining a stable relationship between China and the U.S. to prevent it from becoming derailed by a trade war or escalating regional conflicts. This was highlighted by Trump's decision to launch a missile strike on Syria the same day as Xi's visit.
Reflecting on these issues, Sheldon Simon, Professor at the School of Politics & Global Studies at Arizona State University, claimed that Sino-U.S. relations will remain "a work in progress." Simon told Beijing Review that there are issues where the U.S. and China can work together, for example on North Korea and Iran. They nonetheless differ on issues such as the East and South China Seas. "They are certainly rivals, but not necessarily adversaries," he said.
Trump's frequent denouncements of China during his campaign and while in office were underpinned by his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, who in 2016 even predicted war over the South China Sea. Bannon was recently removed from his position at the National Security Council due to the outspoken political advisor's "outsized influence over military and intelligence decisions from the policy-making body," according to the Los Angeles Times.
"I think people like Bannon and John Bolton [the former United States Ambassador to the United Nations from 2005-06], are dangerous because their views of China are so dark. I don't think their predictions are probable, but [in a] worst case analysis, they could become self-fulfilling prophesies," said Simon, who added that Trump's earlier rhetoric on China was "overblown."
Freeman said she is hopeful that mistrust associated with some disagreements between the two countries, such as over the South China Sea, will not disrupt their mutual academic exchanges. Those exchanges are, according to her, "our best chance for both the U.S. and China to share in training young people from our two countries to reduce the very mistrust that can disrupt the bilateral relationship."
Simon said that given China's importance for the United States in all dimensions--political, economic, and social--the relationship will hopefully grow with time. "We need more academic exchanges, both at civilian universities, but also at military higher education institutions. It's important that government and military personnel are able to understand each other in much the same way that academics meet and exchange research."
What impact will those participating in Sino-American educational exchanges have on the future of their countries? As China's influence on the world stage grows, Americans and other international students are choosing to pursue China studies and the study of Chinese language in ever increasing numbers, according to Madelyn Ross, Director of the Hopkins Nanjing Center in Washington D.C. and Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins University in China (SAIS-China).
The Chinese Ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, is a 1987 graduate of the SAIS, and the former U.S. Ambassador to Viet Nam and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, David Shear, is a 1987 graduate of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. These high-ranking officials exemplify the importance of programs seeking to educate the next generation of leaders.
Ross told Beijing Review that their graduates are also helping to manage trade and investment in and with China, employed by companies including Apple and Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba . "I would say that the number of young people who choose to pursue China studies in depth and bring a deep understanding of China's history and culture to their work in the public, private and nonprofit sectors is already helping to bring greater wisdom to bear in managing the whole gamut of Sino-foreign relations," said Ross.
Similar programs in China include the Schwarzman Scholars international scholarship program, which was founded by the co-founder and chairman of the multinational private equity Blackstone Group, Stephen A. Schwarzman. According to its website, the program, based in Beijing's Tsinghua University, was launched in 2016 following an endowment of $350 million and was inspired by the Rhodes Scholarships.
On March 16, Robert Garris, the Global Director of Admissions for Schwarzman Scholars, said on the program's Facebook page that Schwarzman Scholars is about connecting a cohort of young leaders from around the world with their peers in China.
"The mentors for Schwarzman scholars come, in some instances, from the ministries of the national government. There is a very vibrant technology entrepreneurship community in Beijing. Whether it's making connections to government, [or] making connections to really innovative entrepreneurial businesses in China, the location in Beijing just makes all of that possible for us," said Garris.
The Yenching Academy in Peking University, also in Beijing, hosts a similar program designed to cultivate leadership.
Christopher Murphy, a Yenching scholar from the U.S., told Beijing Review that after a brief stint learning Chinese in Harbin and Hangzhou, he wanted to return to align his academic trajectory with his aspiration to serve as a diplomat in China.
"As Yenching scholars, I believe we have some of the most impacting roles on the future of Sino-Western relations. We are bridge builders. We are learning to build bridges between people and nations. We are being trained to enhance our analytical skills in such a way that will not only enable us to further understand our home countries' positions in international relations, but China's as well," said Murphy.
Murphy claimed that the most important aspect of the program is that Yenching scholars are learning to communicate with the Chinese. "Much emphasis is placed on understanding Chinese culture, which is crucial. Participating in programs such as [those provided by] the Yenching Academy will have remarkable impacts on future Sino-Western relations, because they train students to understand what is between the lines before taking that first step," he said.
These views are echoed by other academicians such as Ahrens, who said relations between China and the U.S. will go through better and worse periods, but that people on both sides who have spent significant time in each other's country, learning the language and absorbing the culture, are needed. "I do not think it is hyperbole to say that prosperity, stability, and peace in the entire Pacific region depend on both sides actively cultivating bilingual, bi-cultural talents," he added.
Copyedited by Chris Surtees
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