CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – “Decoupling” is central to the geopolitical duel between the United States and China. Conceived and promoted by hawks in US President Donald Trump’s administration, this strategy has now become America’s principal tool to weaken Chinese power.
The first act of decoupling – the Sino-American trade war that began in 2018 – has substantially reduced bilateral trade. A similar process is now in full swing in the technology sector, with the US pursuing an unrelenting campaign against Chinese tech giants such as Huawei and ByteDance (the owner of the popular video app TikTok). With the Trump administration threatening to have Chinese firms delisted from US stock exchanges if they fail to give US auditors access to their audit records in China, financial decoupling has begun as well.
Although it remains to be seen whether economic decoupling will succeed in containing China, the strategic logic at least sounds compelling. Because China benefits from its economic ties with the US, severing them will inevitably weaken Chinese growth.
Unfortunately, US China hawks are not content to stop there, but also want to cut America’s cultural and educational ties with China – as their recent actions show. Earlier this year, pressure from Republican lawmakers forced the Peace Corps, which has sent more than 1,300 Americans to China since 1993, to terminate its program in the country. And in July, Trump suspended America’s Fulbright program in mainland China and Hong Kong as part of a package of US sanctions in response to the Chinese government’s security crackdown on the city.
Likewise, in late May, two Republican lawmakers proposed a bill to bar Chinese nationals from coming to the US to pursue graduate studies in the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). And on August 13, the US State Department designated the Confucius Institute US Center, a Chinese government-sponsored entity that provides language programs, as a “foreign mission,” which will almost certainly result in the termination of its activities in the US.
Journalism has suffered the fastest decoupling. After the Wall Street Journal published a commentary in early February with a headline that referred to China as “the real sick man of Asia,” the Chinese government expelled three journalists working for the newspaper. The US retaliated in early March by forcing 60 Chinese citizens working for Chinese state-owned media outlets in America to leave the country. China then expelled all US citizens working for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, effectively crippling these publications’ newsgathering capabilities in the country.
Cutting cultural, educational, and journalistic ties between the US and China is unwise and counterproductive for America. Instead of advancing long-term US strategic objectives by promoting American values and maintaining the moral high ground, the Trump administration is playing into the hands of the Chinese government, which regards these ties as conduits for American ideological and cultural infiltration.
Without government-sponsored exchange programs such as the Peace Corps and Fulbright schemes, the US will have no direct channels for engaging ordinary Chinese people, especially the young. Through these programs, Americans teach English, American history and literature, and Western social sciences, often in remote areas of China that have limited contact with the outside world.
Such activities help Chinese people to gain a more accurate understanding of the US, and help to neutralize official anti-American propaganda. Scrapping these programs thus amounts to unilateral ideological disarmament by the US.
Some US retaliation against Chinese bullying of American journalists seems reasonable. But the Trump administration’s disproportionate expulsion of 60 Chinese journalists gave the Chinese government an excuse to do something it had wanted to do for a long time: throw out the best American reporters.
The mass tit-for-tat expulsions of US and Chinese journalists will hurt America far more than China. Whereas reporters at Chinese state-owned news outlets in the US do little serious independent reporting that could educate the Chinese public, American journalists who cover China – despite constant harassment and surveillance by the Chinese government – provide invaluable information about the country. The loss of these channels will undercut US policymakers’ ability to track critical developments in China.
Finally, blocking Chinese graduate students from studying STEM subjects in the US would deprive America of top talent in these fields and help China to advance. Gifted Chinese students will instead go to other developed countries to study – and many of them will then return home, because STEM-related career opportunities outside the US are less plentiful.
While China will benefit from this reverse brain drain, the US will miss out on contributions from tens of thousands of engineers and scientists. Of the 31,052 PhDs awarded in all STEM fields in the US between 2015 and 2017, Chinese students received 16% of the total, including 22% of engineering PhDs and 25% of those in mathematics. Moreover, some 90% of Chinese science and engineering students stay in the US for at least ten years after completing their doctorates – the highest rate of any nationality.
US-China relations are on the brink of collapse. Economic decoupling is already a reality, and US-led cultural separation – an unthinkable prospect not so long ago – may soon be. That would be a tragedy, and America will be the main loser.
Minxin Pei is Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
— Project Syndicate