America must invest in expertise and skills to compete with China

America must invest in expertise and skills to compete with China
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For the United States, a smart and serious approach to competition with China requires improving our understanding of this key rival. American strategy must be informed by careful assessments commensurate with the complexity of this “new era” of relations between the United States and China. There is no shortage of issues for which expertise on China is essential, from trade and technology to defense and counterintelligence.

For American policies to be designed and implemented appropriately requires leveraging the insights of those with relevant skill sets, including language proficiency and knowledge, which can remain scarce and in high demand. The American national security community must prepare for the cognitive and human capital challenges of great power rivalry.

The government should address impediments to improving expertise on China within its workforce. The broken security clearance process has presented impediments to hiring and must be improved. The delays and protraction of investigations for anyone who has extensive international experience, combined with the intense scrutiny of those who have family overseas that often results in outright denials, can discourage Americans eager to serve our country or even deny them the opportunity to do so.

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It is critical to welcome rather than drive away those with expertise and linguistic and cultural proficiencies. Rigorous screening is essential, but such scrutiny should be reasonable and fair in balancing the risks and benefits. The importance of diversity and inclusion in the national security community is heightened today by strategic challenges. At the same time, the government should also increase its support for language learning and adjust current programs and policies where necessary.

It is certainly troubling that higher education enrollment to study foreign languages has been declining in the United States. American universities are struggling to sustain their language programs and have to increasingly shuttering them. These shortfalls in funding have now contributed to the appeal of Confucius Institutes as a free option for Chinese instruction, which have since provoked the concerns about security and impacts on academic freedom now resulting in policies that demand their closure.

The best solution is making more investments in language education across programs. It will be imperative to improve funding for public universities, and there are a range of specialized initiatives that merit expansion. The Defense Department manages the Language Flagship, involving programs across educational institutions, and the National Security Education Program, providing scholarships to study abroad.

The geopolitical environment renders support for language training even more critical, but it may also intensify the risks. As Chinese intelligence operations against the United States present urgent threats, American students designated as likely to undertake careers in public service could be targeted or vulnerable. The director of national intelligence should review the risks and options for mitigation. The government should also improve training on security for participants and consider supporting more students to study abroad in Taiwan or with intensive immersion.

Building upon these existing programs, the State Department and the Defense Department also should expand instruction in specific dialects of Chinese and in languages that are less often taught but highly valuable for strengthening collaboration with allies and partners in the Asia Pacific region, while also improving efforts to recruit native speakers of these languages. There may be options to improve leveraging of the National Language Service Corps to compensate for current personnel shortfalls.

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The government also should explore options to pursue new applications of artificial intelligence as well as innovations in language learning. The value of learning a language relative to developing technical skill sets is debatable. The advances in natural language processing, from smart voice to machine translation technologies, could render obsolete the role of the linguist. However, there is indeed no substitute for human expertise and understanding for certain contexts and missions.

There are still new options for innovation and potential for disruption. Using virtual reality to create a more immersive experience could be a boon for learning. In China, artificial intelligence solutions assist students in improving their English skills. The ecosystem around using artificial intelligence in education for improved efficiency is promising, and the government should leverage such solutions. The Pentagon could explore the introduction of these techniques at the Defense Language Institute.

The future of relations between the United States and China may shape the trajectory of the 21st century. At a time when American policy toward China is undergoing historic course correction, such measures are only first steps. American initiatives to address the overarching intellectual challenges of great power rivalry require improved academic research and analytical understanding of the Chinese Communist Party along with its government institutions. These cognitive responses to great power rivalry should be important elements of American competitive strategy.

Elsa Kania is an adjunct senior policy fellow for the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.