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What might be lost as China and the U.S. make it harder for scholars to travel back and forth?

Academics and researchers can help foreign policymakers better understand the implications of their decisions.

- May 1, 2019

In mid-April, the New York Times reported that U.S. officials had denied or restricted visas for some 30 international relations experts from China. Beijing has restricted visas for some American scholars as well, including a high-profile informal advisor to President Trump.

What’s going on with these sudden restrictions on academics? And what do they mean for U.S.-China relations? Here are three key points.

1. Are the Chinese scholars with visa restrictions unfriendly toward the United States?

Not really. The visa restrictions reflect, in part, the F.B.I.’s concern that some visiting Chinese academics may be cooperating with China’s military and security agencies. However, some of these scholars with visa troubles actually represent the most constructive voices in U.S.-China relations. And their writings and research might partially shape how Chinese elites and the general public view the bilateral relationship.

A more assertive Beijing raises new questions for U.S.-China relations

A well-established expert on East Asian security, Nanjing University professor Zhu Feng authored a Foreign Affairs essay that suggested China should work more closely with the United States on getting tougher on North Korea. An earlier book on China’s rise, published as part of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs Book Series, was the result of Zhu’s collaboration with leading American scholars. Zhu also collaborated with G. John Ikenberry at Princeton University and Wang Jisi to edit “America, China, and the Struggle for World Order.”

Wu Baiyi, another scholar affected by the visa restrictions, is director and senior research fellow at the American Studies Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China’s top research institute on U.S.-related topics. Wu’s expertise includes international relations, crisis management and Chinese foreign policy. His case analysis of China’s reactions to the 1999 embassy bombing incident offers important insights on crisis management in Sino-American relations.

2. What role do academics play in foreign policymaking in China?

It would not be surprising if a well-established scholar like Zhu Feng has interacted with the Chinese government. This would be essentially equivalent to Zhu’s U.S. counterparts in American universities and think tanks interacting with U.S. government officials.

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While all governments have reasons to strengthen national security, denying visas for influential scholars might hurt normal exchanges of ideas.

According to recent studies on academic debate and Chinese foreign policy, the relationship between academics and China’s foreign policymaking is a two-way process. The Chinese government shapes the research agenda of international relations scholars in China through various mechanisms, including funding, promotion and evaluation. Scholars also serve an important feedback function for the Chinese government. Through publications, seminars and internal reports, China’s decision makers often invite leading Chinese scholars to bring their opinions into decision-making.

My research tracks some important debates going on in China today. For example, Chinese scholars heatedly debate China’s status and role on the world stage. Rethinking China’s rise, some scholars also worry that China’s assertive foreign policies might be too much and too soon.

3. What role do academic ties play in U.S.-China relations? And what’s at risk if these ties come under increasing restrictions?

Academics can play a uniquely important role in promoting mutual understanding – and helping U.S. and Chinese officials understand the other side’s intentions.

U.S. and Chinese diplomats have limited space to discuss sensitive topics like North Korea, Syria and Venezuela, for instance. Scholars may have more flexibility to discuss these issues than policy makers. There are a number of good examples of such academic exchanges.

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The Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD), founded by University of California, San Diego professor Susan Shirk, has long been an important communications channel for officials and scholars from the United States, China, Russia, South Korea, North Korea and Japan. NEACD has held 28 “Cooperation Dialogues” since 1993, offering a valuable platform to reduce risk and promote cooperation in the region.

From 2002 to 2008, China expert Peter Gries organized the Sino-American Security Dialogue (SASD) to bring together U.S. and Chinese security experts for informal discussions. The SASD platform deepened the discussions of foreign policy issues. If academic connections become more limited, similar opportunities for dialogue and cooperation might be lost.

Why does this matter? Misunderstandings might increase if these academic ties become more restricted. For example, a South China Morning Post article explains that Beijing underestimated anti-China sentiment among U.S. political elites and the Trump administration’s resolve in the early stage of the current trade war. This misunderstanding might have contributed to the delay in resolving the U.S.-China trade war.

Restricting academic ties may make for poor decision making in both countries — but there are two additional costs. There will likely be a negative impact on America’s image as a leader in higher education, if international scholars and students face more restrictions. And restrictions on academics’ access also hurts the social foundations of Sino-U.S. relations. As Harvard China expert Michael Szonyi suggests, Sino-U.S. relations could be better viewed as “multiple real relationships embodied in personal connections” instead of “a single, abstract relationship.”

The recent escalating “visa war” occurs in the context of rising Sino-U.S. tensions. There are different interpretations. According to University of Chicago professor John Mearsheirmer, the United States and China might engage in security competition simply to assure their survival — what he calls “the tragedy of great power politics.”

However, as two powerful nations with broad social and economic ties, the United States and China do not have to really worry about their survival. Peking University Professor Wang Jisi provides an alternative explanation. The U.S. is increasingly concerned about China’s potential challenge to its leading position in the international order, while China worries about the U.S. challenge to the Chinese Communist Party’s leading position in China’s domestic order.

Driven by domestic politics of threat inflation, the U.S. and China might increasingly compete for the position of No. 1 paranoid nation in the 21st century, which might be the real tragedy of great power politics. More restricted academic ties might be a symptom of such a tragedy.

Xiaoyu Pu (@pu_xiaoyu) is an associate professor of political science at University of Nevada, Reno, a nonresident senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., and author of Rebranding China: Contested Status Signaling in the Changing Global Order (Stanford University Press, 2019).