Friday, October 24, 2014

Preparing Future Generations to Negotiate the US-China Relationship

© Ana Campos. Creative Commons.

© Ana Campos. Creative Commons.

The imbalance is startling: approximately 17 times the number of university-aged students from the PRC studied in the US last year as compared against the number of American students studying in China. This might not surprise, as China is home to at least 1.4 billion citizens, but the emphasis in China on learning English in primary schools (even in some of the most remote rural areas) suggests that preparation for living in a global world stands as a PRC priority.

The US-China relationship calibrates and recalibrates itself based on a complex set of ongoing negotiations taking place between government officials and average citizens from both nations. Critical to the success of these negotiations, and the type of mutual understanding that contributes to enduring peace and prosperity, is adequate preparation: preparation for linguistic subtlety, preparation for commonly-held assumptions (and their cultural or historical underpinnings), and preparation for and understanding of the overlapping and conflicting interests that might arise during a negotiation. The preparation imbalance that currently exists suggests that one country will suffer from—be it now or later—a distinct disadvantage at the negotiation table, one that can lead to compounded misunderstanding and mistrust. To ready the next generation of American stewards to the US-China relationship, what’s needed is a three pronged approach: starting early, leveraging technology, and diversifying the exchange.

Starting Early: Acquiring fluency in Mandarin is a life-time project and not for everyone. Still, the earlier one begins acquiring a second language, the better. We think nothing of asking American students to study French or Latin, the Trojan War, the European Renaissance, or Elizabethan England, so it doesn’t seem overly outlandish to include in compulsory education a stronger emphasis on the language and culture of a fifth of the global population. Even for students who do not plan on making the study of Mandarin a large part of their academic or professional lives, the study of China (its culture and its 5000 year-plus history) can help unlock other passions and offer a deeper understanding of one’s own culture and how that culture is situated in the world. Linguistic and cultural fluency lends vital strength to a negotiator at the negotiation table.

Leveraging Technology: Technology helps reduce the costs in time and money associated with more traditional, in situ exchange formats requiring passports, visas, lodging and plane tickets. Mandarin language learning companies already capitalize on personal video conferencing platforms to connect students from around the world to native Mandarin speakers in Beijing. As large-screen video conferencing technology becomes more widely available in both the US and China, an increasing number of students in both nations can connect in a common classroom to discuss issues impacting us all. Technology thus constructs a virtual negotiation table where dialogue can ensue with the click of a button.

Diversifying the Exchange: Although internet technology helps reduce the transaction costs of negotiation and exchange, still nothing trumps live, face-to-face interactions. To ensure that the full richness of American culture—which gains great sustenance from all the world’s cultures—finds reflection in the US-China exchange, much work must be done. Moreover, going abroad remains the preserve of those with access to funding.  Organizations like the 100,000 Strong Initiative and Americans Promoting Study Abroad offer opportunities for American high-school students of Mandarin coming from diverse socio-economic backgrounds to study in the PRC. These opportunities not only offer participating American students a richer understanding of Chinese culture, but also engender a more nuanced appreciation of American culture for those PRC nationals with whom they interact. By deepening (and making more complex) our understanding of one another, we construct a firmer foundation for discussing other essential issues that threaten to strain the bilateral relationship.

Legions of students from the PRC are already engaged in a headlong effort to understand other nations and often thrive in that pursuit. The United States can expand initiatives with similar aims. It may seem self-serving (or at least biased) for someone like myself who studies the US-China relationship to lay down this challenge, but my main interest—and the interest of the many generous teachers from China, the United States and elsewhere who prepared me for my career—is to serve those occupying this world long after we’re gone. Although a broad and sometimes daunting remit, fostering greater mutual understanding through dialogue—and its requisite linguistic and academic preparation—seems the surest approach to maintaining a peaceful and productive US-China relationship. Preparation remains fixed at the heart of any successful negotiation.

Alonzo Emery ’10 is a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School and a Clinical Instructor in the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program.