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After the Biden-Xi Meeting: Righting China-US Relations

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After the Biden-Xi Meeting: Righting China-US Relations

Dwindling communication opportunities between the two countries are gradually eroding the foundation of stable relations.

After the Biden-Xi Meeting: Righting China-US Relations
Credit: Official White House photo

Despite the overall cold relationship between the two superpowers since 2021, the recent Biden-Xi meeting in Indonesia has established red lines to avoid potential conflicts between China and the United States. It is a significant step toward stabilizing the most important bilateral relationship in the world. Jessica Chen Weiss, the Michael J. Zak Professor for China and Asia-Pacific Studies at Cornell University, said that the meeting could begin to put the relationship on a better course by setting the stage for officials on both sides to reopen and expand channels of communication.

However, dwindling communication opportunities between the two countries are gradually eroding the foundation of stable relations, thus making the long-term relationship still very difficult. 

Back in 2011, when China and the United States retained frequent communication and strong connections, Americans’ attitudes toward China leaned toward the positive, with roughly half (51 percent) expressing a favorable opinion, compared with only 36 percent who held an unfavorable view. However, along with the trade war and COVID-19 pandemic, China-U.S. mutual exchanges have been impeded. 

After 2018, the number of Americans with an unfavorable view of China increased sharply, peaking at 82 percent in 2022 according to the most recent poll by Pew, while those with a favorable view hit a low of 16 percent. In addition, two-thirds of U.S. adults consider China’s power and influence to be a major threat to the United States.

On the other hand, as a result of declining ties with Americans and emerging China-U.S. competition, the Chinese public’s view of the United States become less favorable, particularly among the younger generation.

These changes are taking places in the context of China-U.S. interactions decreasing to their lowest levels since the 1950s. 

With deeper China-U.S. engagement over the last decade, some groundless concerns about the goals and actions of the Chinese government began to spread throughout U.S. society. For example, opposing voices forced universities to close Confucius Institutes to avoid losing federal funding. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2019 prohibited funding from the Department of Defense to go to any project carried out with Confucius Institutes. U.S. federal agencies also strictly review and even limit funding to universities that continue to collaborate with Confucius Institutes. 

Because of the anti-China sentiment and continuous political attacks on Confucius Institutes, American universities have been cautious about collaborating with their Chinese counterparts, even on programs that are impossible to link to national security. In April 2022, the number of Confucius Institutes in the United States dropped to 18, down from a peak of 103 in 2017. One-third of universities closed their Confucius Institutes due to concerns about federal funding, and more than 20 percent were closed without clear reasons. None of the closures, however, came with direct evidence that the Chinese government uses these institutes for espionage or political interference. 

Former U.S. President Donald Trump also reduced a lot of opportunities to engage with the Chinese, through actions like the trade war, sanctions against companies suspected of hampering U.S. national interests, and halting the Peace Corps Program and Fulbright Program in China. Through the Peace Corps, the United States has sent over 1,000 volunteers to teach English in western China. Many of these volunteers still work in jobs that focus on China, expanding the U.S. understanding of China. It was a diplomatic success that fostered many lasting relationships between Americans and Chinese. But now it is no more.

In addition, Trump halted Fulbright exchanges to China and Hong Kong in July 2020, cutting various research and education opportunities. More than 3,000 Americans and Chinese have participated in the Fulbright Programs in the past 4 decades. The disruption hindered maintaining or establishing people-to-people interactions between the two countries. Recently, several legislators introduced an act to restore the Fulbright exchange to China. Representative Rick Larsen, a co-chair of the bipartisan U.S.-China Working Group, said that this exchange will help the United States build its China expertise, and strengthen people-to-people ties. Rep. Don Beyer, a co-sponsor of the act, said that Trump’s termination of Fulbright Programs with China and Hong Kong was “ill-considered, self-defeating, and short-sighted.” 

Apart from these two programs, it has become difficult for Chinese and American entities to establish or manage other educational collaborations. At present, the COVID-19 pandemic has blocked most American exchanges with China because China almost completely closed its border to foreigners. Educational exchanges between China and the United States suffered a setback under the cooling China-U.S. relations and COVID-19 restrictions. In the 2021-22 academic year, the number of college and university students from the United States studying in China has declined to 382, the lowest since 2009. On the other hand, compared to 2019-20, the number of Chinese students enrolled in U.S. higher education entities fell 22 percent in 2021-22, from 372,532 to 290,086 students. 

The declining opportunities to engage with the Chinese have resulted in three negative trends in the United States. 

First, the national ability to do research on China is in jeopardy, with fewer young Americans concerned or learning about China. On the one hand, the U.S. younger generation’s interest in China is declining, with even the “China threat” narrative not attracting attention. Only 34 percent of U.S. citizens aged 19-28 see China’s military power as a serious problem, and 23 percent see economic competition with China as a serious problem, while the proportion of adults aged over 65 years old holding the same view surpasses 50 percent. 

As a corollary, very few American children and teenagers learn Chinese. According to a study by LingoAce in 2021, only 20 percent of U.S. children under 18 years old are studying a foreign language, and only 3.5 percent of them are learning Chinese. This means that most young scholars in the United States can only learn about China in English. The second-hand materials they use possibly contain translation gaps or bias. It is hard to see a China expert like John King Fairbank or Ezra Vogel in the U.S. academia studying China in Chinese. Fewer and fewer U.S. scholars own both fluent Chinese capacity and firsthand experience living in the PRC. 

However, these young scholars are critical to developing a U.S. strategy or policy plan for China. A strategy without a deep understanding of China, including its culture and political logic, would misunderstand China’s actions and reactions, possibly leading to potential conflicts and terrible loss. Some lessons could be drawn from the cases of Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Second, fewer opportunities to interact with Chinese people has increased anti-Chinese or anti-Asian sentiment in U.S. society to some extent. According to Professor Paul Bell, dean emeritus of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oklahoma, the Chinese and Americans approach many issues from opposite perspectives, making mutual understanding difficult. But both usually ignore these differences to evaluate or even accuse the actions of the other. Some American politicians use such racial tension or social unfavorability of China to achieve their political agenda. This has exacerbated aversion to Chinese people in the United States, increasing racial discrimination in the U.S. and hampering normal interactions between the two countries. For example, some American media blamed the COVID-19 pandemic on China. This strongly triggered Anti-Asian hate in U.S. society, increasing violent crimes against Asian Americans and escalating racial tensions. 

Third, investigations into academic ties with China have made U.S. scholars and universities wary about forming collaborations with Chinese researchers. Since 2018, the federal government launched thousands of investigations under the China Initiative, a program aiming to protect U.S. laboratories and businesses from espionage. According to an analysis by MIT Technology Review, nearly 90 percent of the defendants charged under the China Initiative were of Chinese origin, which raised fear and anxiety among Chinese scientists in the United States. Even though the China Initiative ended in early 2022, it harmed China-U.S. research collaboration, which will take a long time to amend. Christina Hull Paxson, president of Brown University, said that tighter federal government scrutiny of links with China among U.S. universities will hinder research and ultimately undermine the American economy.

Also, the closure of educational programs has reduced the opportunities for American students to study or conduct research in China. Over the last decade, American Confucius Institutes have provided a variety of short-term or long-term funding programs to travel or study in China. With the closure of Confucius Institutes, this major funding source has been gradually phased out. Though Americans could apply for other scholarships, decreasing funding will stop some students from traveling to China. 

Therefore, to better manage the growing repulsion, the U.S. and Chinese governments should relaunch multi-level platforms for citizens to increase educational exchange, people-to-people communication, and collaboration. Scott Kennedy, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that expanding direct, in-person communication between American and Chinese governments and societies is central to responsibly pursuing strategic competition. Mutual engagement may result in complex networks with numerous intangible risks, but communication is still necessary to prevent potential conflicts, lessen misunderstandings and misjudgments, and solidify the foundation of stable China-U.S. relations.