The U.S.-China relationship faces a critical juncture. Today the relationship is marked by progress in certain areas but continued stalemate and simmering tensions in others. The stakes are high given the global implications of the two nations’ interactions with each other across a wide range of issues. One important mechanism to facilitate positive engagement and collaboration, as well as successfully manage tension and areas of disagreement, is people-to-people (P2P) exchange.
The U.S.-China relationship has changed significantly over the past three decades and continues to evolve. As ties between the two countries appear to be entering a new and important phase—marked by high international stakes, increased tensions over strategic and economic issues, and a growing number of overlapping interests—the senior leaders in both nations must counter the buildup of strategic mistrust and rivalry.
From a national security perspective, people-to-people activities have traditionally been considered a less important issue and viewed more as a tool of cultural and public diplomacy, useful only for achieving “soft” diplomatic objectives. Altering this view and utilizing P2P as a way to tackle strategic issues could help reduce tensions over cybersecurity, activities in outer space, nuclear weapons, maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas, and other sensitive security-related topics, as well as address the general trust deficit in the bilateral relationship.
People-to-people relations have long played a critical role in the development of the U.S.-China relationship. More than 200 years ago, the U.S. commercial vessel Empress of China visited the Guangzhou port, marking the beginning of such ties. Over 40 years ago, Ping-Pong players broke the diplomatic ice between the United States and China, heralding the normalization of the bilateral relationship several years later. Since then, thousands of efforts have contributed to the deepening of understanding between the people of both countries, thereby expanding communication channels, addressing challenges, generating economic activity, and improving relationship management.
Nonetheless, significant challenges exist that impede, or at least will complicate, efforts to elevate such exchanges to address more strategic issues. One challenge is the fact there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes people-to-people exchanges – concepts such as soft-power, public diplomacy, and P2P diplomacy are understood differently by both nations. On the U.S. side, some policymakers are quick to laud the benefits of these programs in “warming” interpersonal relations but tend to dismiss their impact in high-level politics. Consequently, they tend to be driven by nongovernmental actors. In China, high-level officials have explicitly tied the promotion of people-to-people activities to the country’s foreign policy strategy. Because of this, the Chinese efforts have been viewed critically by some U.S. actors as an insidious effort to increase Chinese influence abroad. As a result of these differences in definitions, evaluating the impact of activities is difficult.
A second obstacle for P2P exchange is that the bureaucratic systems and mechanisms for organizing these activities vary significantly between the two countries. In China, most of these activities are originally promoted by government agencies, though more and more universities, foundations, and other nonprofit organizations are beginning to play important coordinating roles. In the United States, these activities are organized in a more ad hoc environment, with civil society taking the lead.
Apathy in the policymaking community toward the value of people-to-people exchanges is another obstacle. Many believe that such exchange does not serve a strategic purpose and they are unwilling to allocate the time and financial investment necessary to sustain regular Track 1.5 and 2 dialogues. The lack of quantifiable data demonstrating the impact of P2P exchange on the bilateral relationship makes securing necessary resources dedicated for these activities challenging.
In order to overcome these obstacles and move beyond the status quo, both governments must put aside their suspicions and be open to dialogues, workshops, seminars, and travel groups with the broadest array of participants from business, academic, NGO, scientific, media, and other expert communities that are focused on strategic issues. As the U.S.-China relationship matures, the types of exchange should also evolve to include more dialogues oriented toward national security. Specifically, the two countries should consider creating a high-level channel within the Strategic and Economic Dialogue framework to orchestrate P2P activities (both Track 1.5 and Track 2) focused specifically on building collaboration on global strategic issues.
Additionally, people-to-people activities that focus on areas where the U.S. and China can collaborate will intrinsically build mutual understanding and trust, allowing for the two nations to engage in productive discussions on more sensitive issues. Washington and Beijing should develop a methodology to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of specific exchanges. Furthermore, it is critical that the profile of individuals who participate in such exchange related to national security concerns expand beyond government officials and think tank scholars to include participants from the business, scientific, NGO, academic, and other expert communities.
Finally, given that the key for the future of the bilateral relationship rests in the hands of the next generation of leaders, the U.S. and China should invest in providing more opportunities for student exchanges to train this future generation of relationship managers.