US-China tensions continue and academia is very involved

Last weekend I participated in a simulation game about a potential US-China-Taiwan conflict. It was very well done, created and hosted most ably by a group of George Washington University students.

Nearly 10 bright folks ran the show as facilitators and umpires. Roughly 50 people played, representing a range of actors (in poli sci parlance), each slotted to a specific office or function in the Chinese and American governments. I played in the US Secretary of State group. We tried to protect and rescue civilians, which mostly worked. We also struggled to de-escalate the crisis, and ultimately failed in the final minutes as things turned ugly.

Why do I mention this?

Rising Tides Intro_Briefing opening slide

Partly because I have a long-running love for using games in education. But today I’d like to use it to resume another theme of mine, the continuing trans-Pacific geopolitical tension between Washington and Beijing. This is important to me for general futurist reasons, and especially because of what it means for higher education.  I’ve written about this topic previously (here, here, here)* and it also came up during our reading of Ministry for the Future.

tl;dr – there’s a strong possibility of a new cold war, and academia’s involved.

Let me start with some background.

Over the past few years – really nearly a decade – US-China tensions have ratcheted up.  The Obama administration famously pivoted to Asia, encountered problems with Beijing over territorial claims and intellectual property violations, and tried to arrange a vast trade alliance which pointedly excluded China.  The Trump administration played a key role in creating more tension, of course, through waging a trade war and blaming COVID-19 on China, when Trump himself, never a fan of consistency, wasn’t personally admiring president Xi Jinping.  At the same time some of China’s policies have elicited global outrage, namely its treatment of the Uighur population and its growing surveillance regime.  The nation’s strategy of rising in the world, including its intercontinental One Belt, One Road project have also led some to expect, and practice, policies of tension.  Both nations collaborate deeply economically, but also compete with each other.**

The recent transition to a Biden administration opened up possibilities for changing relations with China, and some conservatives have charged the new government with being too friendly to Beijing. However, so far it seems likely that Biden is continuing an anti-China stance.  He is maintaining a Trump policy targeting Chinese technology firms.  Biden called on businesses to re-source critical supplies, often away from China and Chinese influence.  The official White House summary of Biden’s first call as president with Xi emphasized not friendship but a litany of problems:

President Biden affirmed his priorities of protecting the American people’s security, prosperity, health, and way of life, and preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific. President Biden underscored his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan. The two leaders also exchanged views on countering the COVID-19 pandemic, and the shared challenges of global health security, climate change, and preventing weapons proliferation.

For its part, China Daily described Biden’s approach to China as one that “smacks of Trumpism.”

Some key Congressional leaders back this strategy.  Not all do. One group considered the government’s prosecution of Chinese nationals to be potentially racist. Conservatives, as mentioned earlier, consider Biden too weak on China.  One Republican proposed legislation to cut federal dollars to universities and colleges deemed to be too close to China. On the Democratic side, Senate Majority Leader Schumer is calling for increased National Science Foundation funding, aimed squarely across the Pacific,

to increase research in areas like artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics and the manufacturing of semiconductor chips to make the nation more economically competitive with China.

The bill, Schumer said at his weekly press conference, will “take the key cutting-edge industries and make American investments so we will outcompete China.”

Which brings us straight to higher education.  If Xi and Biden continue leading our nations along a collision course, what does it mean for academia?

At the institutional level, we could see the number of Chinese citizens studying in American colleges and universities drop, both undergraduate and graduate students. This could have serious financial impacts, given that China has been the leading source of international students for some time.  We could also see researcher collaborations fall similarly. Each nation’s research output may suffer from that lack of shared brainpower.  Additionally, universities will lose some of the international intellectual talent they’ve depended on, as Roger Schonfeld points out.

The 20th century Cold War gives us some historical insights. At times – not consistently – both nations encouraged academic study of the other for strategic gain.  That might lead to, for example, more support of American faculty researching and teaching Chinese language, politics, business, culture, strategy, etc.

At other times political actors in both the USSR and USA viewed academic interest in the opposing nation as subversive or disloyal, which might foretell similar attitudes in the 21st century. Such a closed attitude might play out in terms of international academic collaboration. Much as Moscow and Washington often discouraged scholars and students from working across the Iron Curtain, we might see a similar blockage arise over the next decade.

Academic fields which address fields deemed to be of the highest strategic importance are most likely to come under scrutiny and control: AI, robotics, 3d printing, nanotechnology, advanced neuroscience, and others sometimes lumped under the Fourth Industrial Revolution rubric.  Relevant departments may have access to more resources as well as being subjected to increased political control. What happens to open education resources (OER) and open access scholarship in this model?  If universities scrutinize funding sources and are more open about them, as Karman Lucero recommends, how will that impact work?

I’ve been casting this as a bipolar dynamic, but it’s important to see the struggle as one situated within a global context.  First, China and the United States may seek to compete with each other through alliances and proxies, like OBOR or NATO, which can then impact academia. A multilaterally-inclined Biden administration might build an anti-China liberal democratic alliance, which could then drive international academic work. Imagine study abroad being strongly shaped by national priorities, for example, or certain research partnerships either encouraged or discouraged to fit into these multinational contests. How many academics would feel that such an alliance is one to support, in opposition to China’s practice of rising authoritarianism?

Second, nations and their universities will also act autonomously in relation to the Beijing-Washington struggle, especially in response to those nations’ individual policies.  Consider, for example, Australia’s government encouraging academic Antarctic research as part of a drive to compete with China on that continent.  Nations around the OBOR network may weigh their future participation in it, and joining China’s growing research might could play a role in those decisions. How will European academics and publishers view China, as a potential business partner or strategic threat?  Will civil society pressure local academics over alleged support for Chinese policies against Uighurs?

I think it is possible that US-China tensions could ratchet down or at least continue with an emphasis on a mixture of collaboration and competition if both countries agree to it for a single cause: addressing the climate crisis.  It’s possible that each leadership may come to view climate change as an existential threat of the highest order, and one that would be better met with increased collaboration rather than maintaining am adversarial relationship.  If this occurs, we could see a resurgence in student and faculty connections, albeit focused on climate issues: oceanography, civil engineering, Earth science, etc.

The past several months have shown small signs of what might unfold.  The United States Department of Justice arrested an MIT professor and a University of Florida researcher for not sufficiently disclosing ties to Chinese business and government.  A Chinese researcher pled guilty to stealing American research.  In December a Justice official stated that one thousand Chinese researchers had left the nation “amid a stepped-up investigation by the department of alleged espionage by scientists ‘secretly’ affiliated with the Chinese government or military.”  The European Commission ruled that member nations could exclude China from sensitive research efforts.

Taken together, these academic and geopolitical indicators point to a scenario where the United States and China compete more deeply and aggressively. Higher education within those nations and in other countries is already part of that dynamic.  This geopolitical struggle may exercise a strong force on academia over the rest of this decade.

(thanks to many friends for discussions on this topic, including Roger Schonfeld and my supporters on Patreon – join them!)

*I am curious why the US-China struggle isn’t widely discussed in higher education, at least in the United States.  One explanation might be that Americans disregarded China for decades – for example, Branko Milanovic notes that futurists tended to ignore that nation in the middle and late 20th century (source, 155ff).  Decades of isolation didn’t help, and nor does the embarrassingly small amount of classes available in Chinese language, history, and politics.

Another reason might be that American higher ed tends to shy away from international geopolitics. We are happy to get involved (at least expressively) in domestic politics, but transnational issues are beyond us.  It’s true that US academia tends to focus on itself. Yet we have played active roles in 20th century wars, when mobilizations affected our populations in large scale and visible ways, and did host opposition to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Many institutions were outraged at the Trump administration’s Muslim ban. And academia is concerned with the ultimate global issue of climate change.

Why is this topic so marginal in American education’s purview?

**There is much, much more to say on this score. We could speak of the Thucydides Trap, the changing ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, the role of lobbyists and think tanks, Hollywood’s pitch to China, and more.


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