from Asia Unbound

Missing Opportunities in U.S.-China Relations

September 29, 2011

Blog Post

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United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

A screenshot taken from C-SPAN's recording of the Washington Post Live's Global China Summit on September 27, 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy C-SPAN)

This past Tuesday, the Washington Post hosted a day-long conference on China. It was a good set of discussions that offered a range of different perspectives. (You can watch the panels here.)

I participated on the first panel of the morning with former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Rhodium Group head Dan Rosen. Dan raised a number of important issues in the U.S.-China economic relationship and one in particular that is increasingly central to the U.S. debate on China: How do we take advantage of Chinese multinational interest in investing in the United States? Dan estimates that several billions of FDI annually is at stake for the United States. This does not mean that the United States should open its doors to any kind of investment on any terms, but rather that we have to move quickly to find the proper balance of openness and protection in our investment regime.

What struck me most from my panel, however, was a comment by the erudite Mr. Miliband. He had recently spent a week in China and was enthusiastic in particular about the outward-looking Chinese students. He contrasted their interest in and knowledge of the West with what he saw as a failure on the part of students and others in the West to learn as much as they could about China—not just learning Mandarin (which American students are doing in droves) but also learning about Chinese culture and history.

Maybe Mr. Miliband is right, but maybe not. It is true, for example, that China has 130,000 Chinese studying in America while the United States has around 20,000 Americans studying in China. However, there is little doubt that more Americans want to study in China. Already there are more than 60,000 American students studying Chinese in the United States; and let’s not talk about all the toddlers with Chinese-speaking nannies. Whether it is Chinese language classes—which almost always have a strong component of Chinese culture in them—or high school courses on modern China, America’s youth recognizes the significance of Asia and China. A recent poll of American young people found that almost 60 percent had a favorable opinion of China, and 76 percent believed that Asia (including China, Japan, and South Korea) mattered more to U.S. national security than Europe. President Obama’s 100,000 Strong Initiative—if it is properly funded—will support 100,000 students studying in China over four years. In fact, it may emerge that there is far more interest from American and other students from the West in studying and living in China than there is in Chinese capacity (or perhaps interest) to host them there. Perhaps I’ll invite Mr. Miliband to spend a week visiting American high schools and universities to see for himself that our young people know what it means to be part of a globalized world and understand well the place that China will likely hold in their future.