There’s much anxiety these days about the U.S.-China relationship as Presidents Trump and Xi attempt to reach an understanding over how to address nuclear threats from North Korea.
The issue is thorny and the solution elusive. Clearly, such challenges can only be resolved if the two sides base their talks on a sincere commitment to understanding the other’s concerns and positions.
In fact, at all levels, relationships matter and cross-cultural connections are crucial. As our two presidents address difficult and divisive issues from North Korea to trade imbalances to everything in between, they should also put a premium on helping the people of the United States and China understand each other better through educational and cultural exchange.
Fortunately, these efforts are on the agenda as both governments look to bridge their differences through the new U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue. The talks are divided into four tracks, covering diplomacy and security, economics, cybersecurity and law enforcement and social and cultural issues.
The first of these, the Security and Diplomatic Dialogue, was held in June. The second, the Comprehensive Economic Dialogue, occurred in July and the third, the Society and Culture Dialogue, just took place in Washington, where bridging ties and forging more productive relations between Americans and Chinese was a central focus.
It makes sense that one of the four cornerstones in the cabinet-level dialogue is to encourage more robust people-to-people engagement in the realms of society and culture, since doing so will increase the capacity for our two nations to better understand each other.
Previously, the Consultation on People-to-People Exchange (CPE) was the primary platform through which the official U.S.-China dialogue on education, culture and other dynamics of people-to-people exchange took place. The CPE produced more than 400 deliverables in seven years and helped push the bilateral relationship in new, productive directions.
But now, through the U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue, Presidents Trump and Xi have an opportunity to take even greater steps to strengthen our bilateral ties. Just as with monetary and military issues, our countries must now recommit to educational and cultural exchanges that are focused on outcomes.
As the Beijing-based president of the U.S.-China Strong Foundation, an organization that encourages young Americans to learn Mandarin and study in China, I have seen how these exchanges make a difference.
Educational initiatives and people-to-people programs have become pillars of Sino-American relations, withstanding stormy weather from economic rivalry to geopolitical tensions.
As growing numbers of Chinese and American youth study in each other’s countries, learn each other’s languages and meet members of each other’s peer groups, they develop the capacity to draw upon these insights and acquaintances. In future leadership positions, they will more readily find common ground and manage differences.
China is America’s largest trading partner, deeply integrated in American supply chains and serving as the buyer of $169.3 billion in goods and services in 2016, including aircraft, vehicles, machinery, electrical equipment and other high-value added products.
The U.S. has many opportunities to benefit from China’s size and growth, whether through better-informed trade negotiations or smarter marketing strategies. With greater knowledge of Chinese customs and deeper relationships with the Chinese people, the rising generation of Americans will be better equipped to do business with the largest economy outside their country’s borders.
From fighting terrorism and averting nuclear proliferation to promoting economic growth and environmental sustainability, meeting major global challenges requires joint efforts by the U.S. and China. Our two countries cannot collaborate if they cannot communicate.
That begins with cultural and educational exchanges, and the new US-China Comprehensive Social and Cultural Dialogue can serve as an important, outcome-driven vehicle through which we continue to create opportunity and build capacity to address our most pressing global challenges.
Travis Tanner is president of the US-China Strong Foundation, which seeks to expand and diversify the number of Americans learning Mandarin and studying in China.