Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent state visit to Washington, DC, was as controversial as it was historic. It was also urgent.
The US-China strategic relationship is at a critical juncture. From tensions rising over accusations of Chinese cyber hacking and expansion in the South China Sea, as well as growing challenges for US companies doing business in China, the trend lines are exceedingly complex – and dangerous. And the trajectory is increasingly wrong. While the bilateral relationship may, for the foreseeable future, be characterized by contention and competition, we must not let it drift toward conflict. And we all – from the administration to members of Congress to the American people - must proactively seek opportunities for collaboration.
That is why President Obama, during Xi’s visit, announced the 1 Million Strong initiative to increase fivefold the number of US K-12 students studying Mandarin from 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.”
To be sure, the goal of seeing 1 million students studying Mandarin in just five years is ambitious, but it is achievable; moreover, it is crucial. In fact, I would argue, we should get there faster.
The more U.S. students learn Mandarin, the greater their understanding of Chinese culture, history and institutions, and the better prepared they – our future leaders - will be to work constructively with their Chinese counterparts to ensure U.S. interests are achieved.
The United States cannot be a society that does not understand China: It is the world’s second largest economy, our fastest growing trading partner and is exceedingly flexing its muscle around the globe. Fighting current and future challenges, from climate change to violent extremism, depends on a constructive U.S.-China relationship.
The 1 Million Strong initiative isn’t just about language learning. It is about creating a pipeline of young Americans who are exposed to China; it’s about preparing a China-savvy generation; it’s about opening doors for American youth – no matter their background, wherever they may live - to job opportunities and careers at home and abroad.
More broadly, 1 Million Strong is about creating a nation of stakeholders who value the U.S.-China relationship. It’s about smart power. The United States cannot successfully navigate this relationship – our most consequential in the world - with short-sighted or reactionary policies. Containing China is neither possible nor smart. Ignoring challenges with China, on the other hand, is self-defeating. Employing knee-jerk policies is simply dangerous.
Getting to 1 million U.S. Mandarin language learners will not be easy. It will require nationally accepted Mandarin language standards and norms, a significant increase in the number of Mandarin language teachers in the United States, and the development and implementation of technology platforms to ensure accessibility of language teaching to remote and underserved communities around the country.
It will also require the support of national, state and local leaders. Under 1 Million Strong, we will work with a bipartisan coalition of governors, mayors and school superintendents across the country. We will also partner with technology leaders and experts in online education to ensure that the effort reaches underrepresented and underserved communities. Mandarin learning must be available to all students in the United States.
We as a nation have a vast learning gap when it comes to China and language study. Currently, between 300 million and 400 million Chinese students are learning English, but only 200,000 Americans are learning Chinese. And in China, English is a mandatory part of the curriculum for all K-12 students.
There are reasons to be hopeful for the future. In 2009, Obama announced the 100,000 Strong initiative that called for 100,000 U.S. students to study abroad in China by 2014. That goal was met. Now it’s time to raise the bar to grow five-fold the number of U.S. students studying Mandarin by 2020.
Against the backdrop of increased tensions across a range of economic and security issues in the U.S.-China relationship, the urgency to achieve 1 Million Strong could not be greater. All Americans must have a stake in getting us there.
McGiffert is the CEO of the 100,000 Strong Foundation, a national non-profit seeking to dramatically expand the number and diversity of U.S. students studying Mandarin and studying in China. The Foundation will help implement 1 Million Strong.