Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a historic visit to the US. The trip came at a critical moment as the US-China relationship stands at a decisive crossroads. While the bilateral relationship generates substantial benefits for both countries, tensions are rising over cyber security, maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas, obstacles impeding businesses operating in each other’s country and more. These frustrations, along with other friction points, have led to a heightened level of strategic rivalry between the world’s two largest military powers.
There is simply too much at stake, including global stability and prosperity, to allow heightened tensions between our two nations to boil over into conflict. While it should be expected that some discord will inevitably exist between the two largest economies in the world, the growing strategic rivalry could, if left unchecked, very well damage ties and result in negative outcomes for both nations.
The world faces a litany of global challenges ranging from climate change and extremism to non-proliferation and public health crises. To resolve these, the US and China must be able to work together.
In fact, as China has become increasingly more engaged in multilateral efforts, senior leaders on both sides have begun pointing to global governance cooperation as the future glue of the relationship. We urge Washington and Beijing to identify and jointly cultivate many more opportunities to collaborate in areas of mutual concern and overlapping interests.
So how can these two powers be encouraged to mutually address shared challenges while simultaneously laying the foundation for a future, collaborative relationship? Our answer: through cultivating more robust strategic people-to-people ties.
People-to-people exchanges have played a critical role in the development of the US-China relationship. Just over 40 years ago, ping-pong players broke the diplomatic ice between the two countries, heralding the normalization of the bilateral relationship several years later. In 2014, Chinese and US citizens made more than 4.3 million trips across the Pacific Ocean.
The number of exchanges occurring between students, scientists, artists and athletes is growing. In 2014, 275,000 Chinese students studied in the US, an increase of 17 percent from the previous year. Likewise, between 2010 and 2014 more than 100,000 American students studied in China, achieving the goal of US President Barack Obama’s “100,000 Strong” initiative.
Among the many outcomes from the Obama-Xi Summit, we believe none is more important than those designed to shore up long-term stability of the relationship by strengthening people-to-people relations. The two presidents announced several long-term investments in the future of the relationship. Two particularly noteworthy efforts are the “1 Million Strong” initiative and the China-US University Think Tank Forum (CUUTTF) .
The “1 Million Strong” initiative seeks to increase five-fold the number of US K-12 students studying standard Chinese from approximately 200,000 to 1 million by 2020.
As Obama said, “If our countries are going to do more together around the world, then speaking each other’s language, truly understanding each other is a good place to start.”
This ambitious goal to encourage 1 million American students to study Putonghua in the coming five years is crucial for the United States’ future. There is a vast learning gap in the US when it comes to China and the Chinese language. Between 300 million and 400 million Chinese students are leaning English today; but only about 200,000 US students are studying Chinese.
This will ensure the next generation of Americans are better prepared to work constructively with their Chinese counterparts to guarantee win-win cooperation and mutual benefits are achieved. The mission of “1 Million Strong” is to create a nation of stakeholders who value the US-China relationship and will be equipped to successfully manage and lead the US-China relationship away from conflict and in a mutually beneficial direction.
In addition to the “1 Million Strong” initiative, Xi and Obama agreed to launch the CUUTTF in 2016. The CUUTTF will bring together top scholars and experts from both countries by creating a high-end institutional platform to engage in in-depth discussion and research on subject matters concerning bilateral, regional and global issues and challenges, and injecting new intellectual momentum into US-China relations.
As Xi noted, “The foundation of Sino-US friendship lies in the people, and our hope in youth.” It is imperative that intense, high-level diplomatic negotiations continue in order to keep the US-China relationship on a positive track. Stepping up investments in people-to-people exchange will help lay the foundation of what Xi calls a new type of major country relationship that contributes to global peace and prosperity.
Travis Tanner is senior vice president and chief operating officer of the 100,000 Strong Foundation; Wang Dong is deputy executive director of Institute for China-US People-to-People Exchange, Peking University.firstname.lastname@example.org