By Qianrong Ding
Intercultural communication has never been more important than today given the turbulent US-China relationship. The SAIS US-China Dialogue contributes to this effort through a series of meaningful discussions on pressing issues, helping to foster understanding between China and the United States.
The US-China relationship is one of the most complex bilateral relationships in the contemporary world. President Joe Biden highlighted China as the “most serious competitor” to the United States in his first Presidential State Department address, setting the tone for his administration. His remarks called attention to trade conflict, human rights, intellectual property, and global governance issues. Along with issues of policy, anti-China sentiment, heightened during the Trump Administration and continuing through to the Biden administration, will be difficult to overcome without intercultural communication accompanying any policy changes.
There is no escaping that during the Trump administration, anti-China sentiment rose among the American people, reaching its peak in Summer 2020. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 73% of American adults express unfavorable views of China. Anti-China sentiment touches many policy topics, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the trade war, technology competition, and the South China Sea conflict. Even with a new administration, relations are unlikely to change course. During Secretary of State Antony Blinken’ first call with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi, Secretary Blinken spoke of holding China accountable “for its efforts to threaten stability in the Indo-Pacific, including across the Taiwan Strait, and its undermining of the rules-based international system,” indicating a continued firm stance over controversial issues with China.
The ongoing political issues, in turn, provoke the anger of citizens in both countries. Meanwhile, misunderstandings and inaccuracies, recently centered on falsehoods regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, complicate the already turbulent US-China relationship. Academics have long been worried about the rising tensions between China and the United States. In the spring of 2020, three professors at SAIS decided to take action. HNC Director Professor Adam Webb, SAIS China Executive Director Madelyn Ross, and Conflict Management Professor Edward P. Joseph organized a virtual meeting to discuss what SAIS students could and should do with concerns about rising competitions between China and the United States. As a result, the SAIS US-China Dialogue was established in Fall 2020.
Designed to allow graduate students to address the challenge of the rapidly changing US-China relationship, organizers felt creating a space that emphasized communication and understanding would be the first step toward making a change for these promising political professionals.
Building understanding and mutual trust by people-to-people engagement is effective but long-term work. While the competitive relationship is unavoidable, deepening knowledge of each other and improving mutual trust plays an essential role in offering a preferable alternative route for the US-China relationship.
Zian He, one of the initiators of the SAIS US-China Dialogue and a second-year Japan Studies concentrator is an intercultural communication-enthusiast. In his view, the masses in both countries have little chance to learn through personal experience about one another’s culture and country. Instead, their perceptions are often influenced by characterizations in the news and on social media. He implies that intercultural communication could overcome misunderstandings and misperceptions, providing the foundation for a healthier competitive relationship. As more and more SAIS graduates enter the political arena and influence policymaking, the effect of intercultural communication cannot be overstated.
As a graduate school renowned for its deep expertise in international relations, SAIS aims to provide an inclusive environment for students from diverse backgrounds to communicate with each other. Yet, the opportunities to chat freely with schoolmates have been significantly reduced during the COVID-19 lockdown. Also, with heightened tensions surrounding the current US-China relationship, SAIS students rarely dive deep into serious issues in their conversations. While class discussions could be an opportunity for students to exchange opinions, Zian notes that, in his experience, students seldomly share and exchange their opinions. In contrast, the student-led SAIS US-China Dialogue is designed to break these patterns and provide space for SAIS students to be open and honest about their opinions and feelings, with full respect for diversity and equality.
In light of the rising tensions, the SAIS US-China bi-weekly dialogue – with fixed members in a group speaking on different topics throughout the semester – provides a unique environment for communication among SAIS students. To implement their vision, students pay careful attention to detail when preparing discussions. According to another initiator of this dialogue, Jenna Wichterman, a second-year Conflict Management concentrator, the team has dedicated a significant amount of time to divide participants into groups that include a range of perspectives and recruiting moderators to facilitate each dialogue group.
Though only one semester in, this form of dialogue is generally well-regarded. Most group members are continuing to participate this semester, and increasingly more students show interest in joining this dialogue. “We’ve had interesting and substantive conversations about issues ranging from intercultural to geopolitical topics. It’s also been fantastic to build community and foster new friendships at SAIS amidst a pandemic,” Jenna says.
Pete Colombo, a Strategic Studies concentrator, describes himself as an “advocate and supporter” of the dialogue group. As a dual MBA/MA degree candidate with a military background, Pete seeks to “explore the US-China relationship through the lens of business, trade, and opportunities for shared growth.” Pete says he gains valuable insight from talking about challenging issues in a respectful and constructive way with peers from China and other students who’ve studied or grown up in the area. He, too, believes in the importance of effective communication between China and the United States, and in pursuing cooperation whenever possible. “This dialogue directly contributes to that vision,” Pete said.
The rapidly changing US-China relationship poses challenges to communication between the two countries. Yet, it also indicates that intercultural communication has never been more important than today. With intercultural communication fostering and deepening understanding and mutual trust, the spring thaw could finally be in view.