"We want to see Chinese youngsters here, American youngsters in China, and we want to see them breaking down the barriers that exist between any peoples from different cultures and experiences and histories and backgrounds. And I think that will happen because in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago, young people in both China and the United States are global citizens."
In her remarks recently at the Department of State, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton led the charge to increase student exchanges between China and the United States. The occasion served as the official launch of the 100,000 Strong Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to dramatically increase the number and diversify the population of U.S. high school, undergraduate and graduate students who study in China. Through public-private partnerships, the foundation will support the mission of the Department of State's 100,000 Strong Initiative, which was announced by President Barack Obama during a state visit to China in November 2009.
The Foundation will be housed at the School of International Service at American University, a leader in international student exchanges. More than 80 percent of undergraduate students and more than 40 percent of graduate students study or work abroad during their time at the School of International Service.
But, like most U.S. universities, the number of students we send to China pales in comparison to the numbers that arrive at American University and at universities across the United States each fall. The Institute of International Education (IIE) reports that in 2010-11, 14,596 U.S. students studied in China, only 5.3 percent of all U.S. students studying abroad. (Ranked above China were the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and France.)
By contrast, 157,558 Chinese students studied in the United States in 2010-11, and 194,029 came to the United States in 2011-12, totaling 25.4 percent of all foreign students studying in the United States during the last academic year, according to IIE.
Why Should We Care?
At the start of the Obama administration's second term, the challenges the president faces are enormous, from a deeply strained relationship with Russia, to conflicts arising throughout the Middle East and North Africa with significant potential to spread, to growing antagonisms between two leading powers in East Asia over uninhabited islands.
In light of the size and scope of current conflicts around the world, increasing the numbers of students who study abroad would seem to be the least of our national security challenges.
But, simply put, we need more students, and a more diverse student population, to study abroad. Power is diffusing from traditional great powers to other states and to non-state actors, ushering new challenges for global governance. Who will set the rules and norms to manage economic, political, environmental, health and security challenges? How will those rules and norms be negotiated? Who will enforce them? The clarity of the bipolar Cold War order and of the unipolar era of the 1990s has given way to an uncertain international future of multiple powers and multiple actors.
Bearing this in mind, the United States will need more Americans to study, work and live overseas who can then understand their colleagues from around the world, and who in turn, can help individuals from other parts of the world understand America. Nowhere is this more important than in China, where perceptions of the United States government and American society are largely affected by state-owned media. Most recently, talk of the American rebalancing toward Asia has been criticized in Beijing, as a veiled effort to reduce Chinese influence in the region. A greater influx of U.S. students studying in China has the potential to serve a strategic goal of improving trust between citizens of both nations, with hopes of improving relations between both governments, an important step toward addressing our present-day global challenges listed above and those on the horizon. Simply put, part of America's rebalancing strategy must be encouraging more students who study abroad to study in China, and that is the mission of the 100,000 Strong Foundation.