What role will academia play if the US-China conflict escalates?

What will happen to American academia if tensions between China and the United States escalate?

Worldwide threat assessment_coverI’d like to explore this through a recently released intelligence community report, but should preface it with an introduction.

Increasing US-China tensions is a possibility we should consider.  Said tensions have already risen over the past year with the Trump administration’s declaration of trade war.  Meanwhile, Graham Allison’s “Thucydides Trap” theory has been making the rounds of geopolitical and defense thinkers, positing that a Sino-American struggle is quite likely, and may well include conventional warfare.  There are other, longer-standing reasons as well, including Obama’s China-isolating Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty attempt, Cold War history and the Pentagon’s post-Soviet contingency planning.

How does academia fit into this picture?  At present higher education is already engaged in the worsening nUS-China dynamic on multiple fronts.  In 2014 the House of Representatives held hearings on the Confucius Institutes. The Trump administration has discussed adding certain areas of academic research to its trade war strategy.  Two Representatives, one from each side of the aisle, called on one major university to cut its Confucius Institute.  President Trump openly described Chinese students as spies; a musicology student just got arrested for taking photos of a Florida military installation.

Some academics have become active on this score as well, with one American group calling out Beijing for threats to academia freedom and some campuses expressing unhappiness with local Confucius Institutes.  (I’ve blogged about this topic previously, and the topic appears in my new book as well.)

So in that context let’s look into the 2019 “Worldwide Threat Assessment Of The US Intelligence Community.”  Daniel Coats, director of national intelligence (DNI), is listed as author.  The text covers a lot of ground, appropriately, but China appears as possibly the most salient threat in the report’s estimation.

tl:dr version – the American intelligence community sees academia playing a significant role in the struggle with China, both directly and indirectly.

The DNI brings up other adversaries, notably Russia, North Korea, and jihadists, but China looms largest.  Cyberwar is a key dimension of that threat:

China remains the most active strategic competitor responsible for cyber espionage against the US Government, corporations, and allies. It is improving its cyber attack capabilities and altering information online, shaping Chinese views and potentially the views of US citizens…

So is espionage and intelligence: “Russia and China will continue to be the leading state intelligence threats to US interests, based on their services’ capabilities, intent, and broad operational scopes.”  Moreover, “We assess that China’s intelligence services will exploit the openness of American society, especially academia and the scientific community, using a variety of means.” (emphasis added)

The report also sees Beijing considering multiple forms of economic strategy, including some aimed at shaping the way people expression opinions about that nation: “China will continue to use legal, political, and economic levers—such as the lure of Chinese markets —to shape the information environment.”

Academia plays a significant role in the report’s assessment of potential Chinese threats.  Consider this infographic:

China tech development strategy_2019

Academic collaborations are 1/10th of the lot, right off the bat.  Plus we can infer academic participation in others: research partnerships, obviously; science and technology investments, naturally; joint ventures, perhaps.  The Geyser also sees talent recruitment as including academia, which makes sense.

The threat assessment is very concerned with America falling behind on research in the global setting, and clearly sees China as the leading threat on that score:

Researchers citing more foreign and less US research 1996-2016

There are many potential areas for conflict.  Consider:

  • China is now the world’s second-largest producer of scholarship, just behind the United States (see also).  A research competition is not out of the question, especially for older folks recalling the post-Sputnik Cold War version.  We could see this happen at a national level, should Congress or a White House call for funds and policies to boost American R&D against China.  Here’s a relevant passage from the report: “For 2019 and beyond, the innovations that drive military and economic competitiveness will increasingly originate outside the United States, as the overall US lead in science and technology (S&T) shrinks…” We could also see a competitive drive occur on campuses and within associations, as people position work in terms of trans-Pacific competition.
  • Certain academic programs could expand in terms of funding and student interest: Chinese language, Chinese studies in general, East Asian fields.  Depending on how One Belt One Road turns out, disciplines studying nations in that system could see rising interest as well.  The report also warns about Chinese influence in South America.

China OBOR map Wikipedia

  • Some Chinese investors have been exploring acquiring American campuses.  Will this elicit public outrage?  Will state governments or the fed take steps against this?  How do private institution trustees respond to Chinese inquiries?
  • Chinese students enroll in very high numbers on American campuses.  They are the largest population of grad students.  How much will colleges and universities suffer if those numbers turn down, for geopolitical reasons?
  • Some American academic research powers space exploration, while other programs benefit from space-borne infrastructure.  China is rapidly becoming a player in space.  Will this spur a new space race for the United States, meaning a large increase in related academic fields (physics, engineering, etc.)?  From the report: “countries—including US adversaries and strategic competitors—will become more reliant on space services for civil and military needs, and China and Russia will field new counterspace weapons intended to target US and allied space capabilities…”
  • As colleges and universities continue expanding their digital footprints they are increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks from all corners of the Earth.  China is already engaged in poking at American cyberinfrastructure, and the United States is responding both in kind and through diplomacy.  If China ramps up cyberwar against different aspects of American society, it’s not a stretch to imagine universities being targeted.  Imagine a campaign to degrade American research capabilities.  We can also imagine the reverse, an American campaign to quash Chinese R&D.  Will the US start recruiting cyberwarriors from universities in order to sic them on other campuses?
  • China is currently developing an elaborate system of social control through digital technology.  It is also suppressing its Muslim minority, which the intelligence report interprets as a blow to religious freedom (while adding other groups: “intensified repression of Chinese Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities”).  The report actually argues for the existence of a global ideological battle between China, America, and allies of each:

The Coming Ideological Battle

Chinese leaders will increasingly seek to assert China’s model of authoritarian capitalism as an alternative—and implicitly superior—development path abroad, exacerbating great-power competition that could threaten international support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

  • At least one Chinese campus is experiencing a crackdown on expression.  One report claims that some Uighur academics are being “interned, imprisoned or forcibly disappeared.” Will American academics organize politically against this, much as some do against Israel (the BDS movement) or did against South African apartheid in the 1980s?  Will non-academics (politicians, cultural figures) call for boycotts or other measures that can impact American higher education?  There has been an American pro-Tibet movement for years, although it is quite small.
  • Some in America could specifically target Chinese control over education.  The intelligence assessment offers this interesting formulation: “Beijing’s increasing restrictions on scholars’ and researchers’ freedom of movement and communication with US counterparts may increase the prospects for misunderstanding and misinterpretation of US policies.”  Cf the previous point about the Uighur academic crackdown.
  • If anti-Chinese racism spikes in America, how will this play out on campuses?  Should we expect attacks on China specialists, parents discouraging students from taking Chinese language classes, protests against scholars for their publications and social media utterances?  Will colleges and universities be pressured to enroll fewer Chinese students, or block them altogether?
  • Will academics protest America’s anti-Beijing attitude in significant numbers?  If so, could our campuses experience arguments or clashes between pro- and anti-China factions?
  • If China turns to fake news and other information operations against the American population, will this boost demand for digital literacy curricula?  From another angle, will anxieties about election security increase state and local policy challenges to students voting?
  • The Geyser reminds us that Chinese intellectual property (IP) practices and policies still irk IP industries, especially in the US.  The report cites IP issues as significant threats, twice, but doesn’t name China explicitly.  This is another space for American academia to be involved in the international dynamic.  Think, for example, of the impacts should an anti-China lobby manage to get Congress to pass stricter IP protection laws, or if that lobby joins with the big IP industries (movies, music, software) to press technology firms to add further user controls (DRM, blocks to recording, monitoring uploads for copyright violations, etc.). The open education resources (OER) and open access in scholarly publication (OA) movements could run up against such drives.

These are all possibilities, different ways the entire two-nation system could proceed.  We can temper and hedge these futures, of course.  First, the assessment report is a product of America’s intelligence agencies.  They are quite fallible and have their own agendas.  Second, should China enter recession, many of these threats may recede, at least for a time.  Third, Americans generally seem happily ignorant of anything involving China.  Many, especially Democrats, are more focused on Russia.  Short-term events can also draw attention to other actors, such as North Korea or jihadist terror. In that environment the kinds of political or cultural movements I suggest above may simply fail to win any traction.

One caveat: in assembling this information and reflecting on it, I do not intend to call for a certain American or Chinese response.  This post is not advocacy but analysis.

Later this month I should have more time for research, once the move is completed.  This is a massive and interdisciplinary topic.  If any reader would like to suggest scholarly resources to pursue along the lines of this post’s reflections, please share in the comments box.

(via The Geyser)

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2 Responses to What role will academia play if the US-China conflict escalates?

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Outstanding article. I haven’t seen this analysis elsewhere. Have to wonder how much foreign enrollment will drop not only from China, but other nations with Trump in office. FYI: University of Illinois recently took out an insurance policy to cover losses in Chinese enrollment.

  2. Tomás Summers Sandoval says:

    Thanks for writing this. I appreciate the thoughtfulness and, as always, the data. I think the evolving situation between the US and China presents a lot of questions, opportunities, and concerns for the future of higher education generally, and scientific research specifically. Time will tell——perhaps sooner rather than later with the changing enrollment patterns. (Friendly note: Above you write Chinese students are the largest share of grad students. I think you meant “international grad students.”)

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