There is a consensus within China now that in order to meet the country’s growing influence and demands at the global level, there should be a large number of international relations and area studies experts. Indeed, in recent years, we have seen many more programs of language and cultural training start up at Chinese universities and other institutions, a trend that has only deepened after China launched the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative in 2013. Of course, China still has a long way to go before it can catch up with the United States in terms of the quantity and quality of regional studies experts, but the trend is a healthy one.
This trend is especially an interesting contrast to the United States, which, according to Charles King’s essay in Foreign Affairs in 2015, has seen a decline in the popularity of international studies. King was particularly right that a global power’s strength does not just come from its military and economic power, but also from fostering a deep and rich understandings of other cultures and countries, including language, customs, political systems, and geographies. For the last half century, the United States has been the indisputable leader in producing insightful and rich knowledge of all the above. Unfortunately, in more recent times the U.S. has seemed to retreat from this great tradition for a range of reasons and the end result could hurt U.S. national interests.
Perhaps the Chinese government has learned a good lesson from the U.S. experience here, as it has tried very hard to improve its own understanding of other regions and cultures. Partly, this is an inevitable development. For example, when China sends peacekeeping forces to Africa, it becomes necessary to learn the local languages and cultures in order to avoid unnecessary conflict. Moreover, as Chinese investment pours into Pakistan and nearby regions, the need for experts who can speak local languages becomes urgent.
Along with the rapid development of think tanks on international affairs since 2013, Chinese universities have also quickly expanded their international relations programs. A number of new schools and centers for international studies have been launched by top universities in China. Peking University now has its own institute for international and strategic studies, which is led by renowned professor Wang Jisi. Furthermore, Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou established a school of international relations and an academy of international studies, further assisting Jinan University’s school of international relations (the biggest one in Southern China). These developments made Guangzhou a third pillar of international studies in China.
The top five schools of international relations in China–Peking University, Renmin University, Fudan University, Jinan University, and Tsinghua University–all have invested heavily to recruit both Chinese and foreign experts to expand their research focus. Fudan University’s Tang Shiping has already become influential globally, with his book winning the annual book award of the International Studies Association, the largest academic association on global affairs in the world. More young scholars and PhDs have also come back to mainland China, helping to build a bridge between China’s international relations community and the global community. As more and more interactions between middle-aged and young Chinese researchers and their Western counterparts occur, we can expect better and deeper mutual understanding between China and the world, which is essential to fostering more peaceful relations between the two.
At the end of the day, there is still a wide range of misunderstanding and mistrust between China and the outside world. There is no need to blame either side for this–both may be responsible. One thing is certain: we need more Chinese experts who actively interact with their foreign colleagues, through research and networking efforts. It is high time for international studies to take off in China and the whole world stands to benefit.