When Vice President Joe Biden visited Beijing in December, he was on a crisis-management mission to diffuse recurring tensions in the East China Sea, spurred most recently by China’s new Air Defense Identification Zone. This development has the entire region on edge, worried about the real potential of military escalation or a near miss, reminiscent of the April 2001 “spy plane incident.”

In September, Shuanghui International received approval from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to purchase Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, a deal worth $4.7 billion.  Despite its formal approval, the Smithfield deal represents just one of many Chinese investments in the United States that raises fear among some Americans of an aggressive China that seeks to poison our food and challenge us economically and militarily. Often overlooked are the benefits for the US economy including job creation and trade growth.

These two examples of tension in US-China relations—one political, the other economic—underscore the need for deeper understanding between our two countries. The risk of strategic miscalculation or lost economic opportunity is too great to ignore.  The US-China relationship is the most important, not only of the 21st century, but perhaps also of all time, and we must invest in it through our young people.

That is the message that US Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong delivered in November when they convened in WashingtonMadame Liu stated: “History will prove that our efforts here today for youth exchange between our two countries will, without a doubt, become the most valuable resource for the future of China-US relations.”

A former senior Obama administration official told us that US-China efforts to strengthen ties between our young people have all but rescued the relationship in recent years; tension during the crisis over the so-called blind dissident Chen Guangcheng’s effort to take refuge in the US embassy in May 2012 was diffused in part by the US and Chinese leadership’s participation in an event with students. Ties between our students help bank significant goodwill that can be drawn on in the face of significant diplomatic or economic challenges; they also ensure that our next generation of leaders has the necessary skills to manage these challenges in the future. But are we as a nation making the necessary investment?

That question is the driving force behind the two most important educational initiatives endorsed by both Washington and Beijing: the 100,000 Strong Foundation and Schwarzman Scholars. The US and Chinese governments have prioritized these two high-profile efforts to signal their long-term commitment to the bilateral relationship.

100,000 Strong, officially launched by Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton in January 2013, is a national movement designed to increase the number and diversity of Americans studying in China. A major focus of the organization is to make the case to a broad swath of young people that understanding China is not only critical for the future of US-China relations, but also for their own academic and professional careers. As former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has said: “The 100,000 Strong Foundation is the most important vehicle for ensuring a long-term, stable US-China relationship that exists today.”

Schwarzman Scholars, the single largest philanthropic effort ever undertaken in China by largely international donors, is a landmark program designed to equip the next generation of global leaders to engage constructively with China. The program will offer a one-year, fully funded master’s degree program housed at Schwarzman College on the campus of Tsinghua University in Beijing.  It will offer unrivaled access to China and help emerging leaders understand the country, its people, culture, economy, and political motivations. Condoleezza Rice, 66th US Secretary of State, has said that “Schwarzman scholars will help shape the future of international relations by shaping those who are going to determine that future—the young leaders of the future.”

The 100,00 Strong Foundation and Schwarzman Scholars share the mission of deepening ties between the United States and China. We share the view that understanding China can no longer be an elective, but rather must be part of our core curriculum. The need is clear and urgent: America needs a workforce and leadership that is China-fluent. Regardless of economic or personal background, all Americans must understand China. This is a national imperative, one that our two governments have recognized and endorsed.

The United States and China will certainly continue to have nerve-racking strategic disagreements and robust economic competition well into the future; it is perhaps inevitable given the strength of our two nations. But confrontation is not inevitable. To avoid it, we need a deeper bench of well-trained Americans who are negotiating, competing and collaborating with their Chinese peers. As President Obama said in a letter lauding 100,000 Strong and the announcement of Schwarzman Scholars in April 2013, “Throughout history, educational exchanges have transformed students and moved nations forward in deeper understanding and mutual respect.”

We can only achieve this mission with the active support from Washington and Beijing, as well as the private sectors for which this relationship is particularly consequential. When Vice President Biden talked about US-China educational exchange during the five hours of talks with President Xi Jinping in Beijing in December, the tensions lifted and hope for the future of the relationship inspired both sides. We can draw on that, but we need to invest in it first through our young people. It is the most important investment both sides can make in our shared future.

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About the Authors

Carola McGiffert is the president of the 100,000 Strong Foundation. Stephen A. Schwarzman is the chairman, CEO, and co-founder of Blackstone and founder and chairman of Schwarzman Scholars. [/box]

(Photo by Jon Parry via Flickr)

Posted by Christina Nelson