Growing Friction in US-China Relations: Manageable Differences or Major Crisis?

Major tensions on crucial security issues have not come in the way of economic and people-to-people ties between Washington DC and Beijing, over the past three decades. Although diplomatic strains between the two sides have persisted for long over quite a few issues, one of them being successive US administrations from time to time flagging human rights concerns in China. During Trump’s Presidency, however, economic ties between both countries have witnessed a clear downward spiral. While not everyone agrees with the methods adopted by Trump, there is a realization across the board that something needed to be done to address Washington’s huge trade deficit with China, and that for long Beijing had benefitted at the cost of Washington’s largesse.

The US President has made it amply clear, that even if an agreement is signed, he will not reduce tariffs. Apart from trade, there have been other areas where ties between Washington and Beijing have grown – especially over the past three decades. One link is sister city and sister province agreements and the other is Chinese students studying in the US.

If one were to examine the relevance of sister city agreements, the first sister city agreement was signed between Nanjing (Jiangsu Province) and St. Louis (Missouri, US). Sister city relationships have also played a key role in strengthening economic ties between US cities, in the state of Illinois and North Carolina, with Chinese provinces. An example of sister city links playing an important link in economic ties between both countries is the sister city agreement between Lakeland (Florida) and Chongming (a suburb of Shanghai). This linkage played an important role in ECON securing a contract for designing the East Bay Waterworld – a theme park, residential and business center.

The rapport between current US Ambassador to China, Terry Branstad (handpicked by Trump), and Chinese President Xi Jinping was built, as a consequence of sister province exchanges between Hebei and Iowa. Xi Jinping, who was a Communist Party functionary in Heibei, led an agricultural delegation to Iowa in 1985, and Branstad was then governor of Iowa. Both got an opportunity to meet once again in 2012 when Xi Jinping visited the US as Vice President. Xi’s personal rapport with Branstad was the key reason why Trump, who believes in personal chemistry, selected the former Iowa governor.

US universities a favored destination for Chinese students

If one were to look into another area, the sphere of education, there are close links to be found between both countries. Chinese students comprise approximately one-third of the total number of international students studying in the US. As of July 2018, there were about 3,40,000 Chinese students in the US, who contribute a whopping 12 Billion USD to the US economy. International students help, not in just subsidizing education for US universities, but also create jobs. According to an estimate, for every seven international students studying in the US, three jobs are created in the US.

Notably, children of Senior Chinese officials study in the US. This includes Xi Jinping’s wife, Xi Mingze who graduated from Harvard University. As an aside, it may be pertinent to point out that only recently the Chinese President met with the President of Harvard University.

Off late, there have been differences between both countries over a number of issues which could result in a dramatic reduction in Chinese students who want to study in the US. This includes restrictions imposed on students enrolled in certain courses, activities of Confucius Institutes and a ban on funding from Huawei.


The US has become suspicious of Chinese students enrolled in certain courses due to them having access to cutting edge US technology. A large number of policy makers are worried that many Chinese students indulge in data theft as well as espionage (presumably at the behest of Chinese security and intelligence agencies).

In June 2018, the visa duration of students planning to study subjects such as robotics, aviation and advanced manufacturing, was significantly slashed from five years to one year. Interestingly, the US President Trump, not known for being nuanced, went to the extent of stating that every Chinese student in the US is a spy. The US President had also suggested background checks of students – such as their social media activity. The US National Security Strategy of 2017 also pointed to reviewing Visa procedures in order to ‘reducing economic theft’.

Confucius Institutes

To enhance understanding with regard to Chinese culture, especially Confucian values and for imparting training in Mandarin, Confucius Institutes were set up at US educational institutions. There are a total of well over 500 Confucius Institutes globally ever since 2004. According to the NAS, the overwhelming majority (97) of the 104 Confucius Institutes are at Universities and Colleges. Instructors in these institutes are affiliated to China’s Ministry of Education, are from Mainland China.

A large number of US policy makers have been questioning the lack of transparency with regard to the funding of these institutes, and are uncomfortable with the fact that these institutes are being used for peddling Chinese propaganda. Contentious issues like Taiwan Tibet and Tiananmen are not discussed at these Institutes as has been mentioned

A recent report by a Homeland Security subcommittee revealed that China has spent 158 Million USD in more than 100 Confucius Institutes situated in the US. In 2018, senior US policy makers, Senators Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton and Representative Joe Wilson introduced the Foreign Influence Transparency Act, which would require the Confucius Institutes to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA.

The Foreign Influence Transparency Act obligates the US universities to disclose donations of 50,000 USD or above. The Homeland Security Committee report mentioned earlier, which is bipartisan has sought greater transparency with regard to Chinese funding in Confucius Institutes and other institutions. Apart from this, it also clearly says that the US laws should apply to these institutes. As a result of the application of Chinese laws, academic freedom is often restricted and China’s political agenda is promoted.

The report does not however oppose exchanges between Chinese and US educational institutions in principal. Some Universities, such as Pennsylvania State University, University of Chicago and the University of North Florida have closed down the Confucius Institutes on their campuses.

It would be pertinent to point out that it is not just policy makers who have raised the red flag with regard to the activities of Confucius Institutes, but even sections of the US academic community which are uncomfortable with the functioning of these institutes.

Chinese students have been assertive on US campuses. Invitation to Dalai Lama by the University of California, San Diego for the 2017 commencement was opposed by Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA). Chinese students met with the University Chancellor and were assured that Dalai Lama’s speech would not be political.

Funding from Chinese tech companies

A number of US universities are beginning to not just decline funding from Chinese telecommunication companies, but are not purchasing equipment (video conferencing systems, audio-video equipment). Senior US officials have warned against collaboration with these companies because of intellectual theft and possible spying.

The National Defence Authorization Act or NDAA passed in August 2018 has imposed a ban on recipients of federal funding from using telecommunications equipment, video recording services and networking components made by Huawei or ZTE.

Huawei has been collaborating with American Universities by funding research projects through a program titled Huawei Innovation Research Programme (HIRP). Members of US Congress, while alluding to HIRP, in a letter to the US education Secretary noted, “Research partnerships with US universities are a primary mode of ‘China’s Toolkit for Foreign Technology Acquisition’,”

Three institutions, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine and the University of Wisconsin are replacing Huawei equipment. Berkeley has replaced a video conferencing system, while UC Irvine is replacing audio-video equipment. UC San Diego has refused to accept funding for a period of 6 months.

Washington does need to adopt a more nuanced approach and should not shut the doors on all Chinese students. Most Chinese students, like other international students are genuinely interested in benefiting from a US education and want to learn more about American society. In this context, it has been rightly stated that: “… at the end of the day, a blanket ban on Chinese students is not only un-American, it is also un-competitive.”

One thing is clear, it is increasingly becoming tough to de-hyphenate economic and people-to-people links from broader political differences. Areas like education too are likely to suffer. With the ‘technology’ cold war, this is likely to become even tougher. Taking an extreme stand will benefit neither side. If China wants other countries to accept its rise and respect its political system, its students going to other countries should also respect the academic culture and value systems of countries where they study. The US-China relationship is complex. And to ensure that tensions do not rise, further pragmatism as well as sustained engagements are essential.

Image: Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.

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