March 27, 2023

By Richard Kagan
AAP correspondent

Last week I attended the Convention of the Association for Asian Studies at the Marriott Hotel in Washington D.C.  The four-day meeting hosted 3,600 scholars, government officials, and American and international students who had the opportunity to choose from 443 panels on academic topics as well as visit with over 100 publishers of educational materials on Asia.  During this gathering that included over 250 panels on Chinese affairs by Chinese and foreign scholars, it was reported in the national news that FBI Director Christopher Wray warned Americans with a touch of vulgarity that “Chinese intelligence operatives are littered across U.S. universities, possibly to obtain information” which can be used to spy on the American academic and businesses.  The response to these remarks reminded many of the prejudice against Muslims, Japanese and other foreigners in general. Many Asian-American organizations sharply criticized Mr. Wray for his racist and intimidating remarks.

It would have been an excellent idea for our Congressmen and women, the press and the media to have attended some of these panels, and to have interviewed the participants to educate themselves and their readers on the nature and content of these panels.

One particular panel that is relevant to America explored the issue of China’s “Ocean Culture.”  Two speakers were Chinese from Hong Kong, and one from the U.S.  Professor Tabitha G. Mallory addressed China’s policies to evolve into a “National Sea Power.”  She explained that the Chinese government has been engaged for decades in developing their continental regime into “a global ocean power.”

Professor Mallory has tracked this process through a rich data retrieval.  The national policy for this ocean strategy is based on a rejuvenation of the Chinese nation that effects all aspects of education, culture and identity.  There are over 100 published goals that will engage the full participation of the population by means of a detailed ocean awareness index.  These include recording the penetration of all media, publications, schools and universities, laws, and the sciences in topics related to oceans such as:  international law, marine resources, the maritime economy, ship building, the marine industry, geography, oceanic culture, climate change and, of course, maritime security. In terms of foreign policy, there is the justification for building relationships with other countries that line the Pacific Rim.   (Incidentally, the Rim includes the countries in East Asia, the islands in the South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, Latin America, Central America, the Mexico, the U.S. and Canada — that is, the full rims of the Pacific Ocean. Antarctica and the Arctic are covered by other organizations.) China is forming multilateral relations with these countries, forming webs of trade and mutuality throughout the Pacific.

Militarily, China’s “Ocean Dream” applies to islands in the South Pacific and near Japan which will used as shipping centers, military ports, and armed fortifications.  These will be at the frontiers of China’s Naval Power.

What can WE learn from this move toward Oceanic Empowerment by the Chinese State?  First of all, President Trump’s singular and staccato attacks on China’s trade patterns, and its military buildup in its Ocean islets, ignores the realities that these issues of trade and security are only part of China’s economic, cultural, and international development plan.  WE must create our own “Dream” with as much planning and determination.  WE need to educate our population in a way to strengthen their belief in America’s values and future of an ocean open to all nations and people.

Secondly, President Trump must pull the FBI Director and other xenophobes from their anti-Chinese rhetoric and charges of spying on America.  There are over 330,000 Chinese students in the U.S.  True, some stay here, but many return.  And those who remain have family and friends back home.  The Director’s attitudes affect Chinese students and residents.  Many are now feeling insecure about living in and depending upon America.  So, they are leaving.  And taking their talents, education, and social networks back to China and on to other countries where they will find work, and study.  This change of respect for America will greatly damage our economic and national security.    

Even more threatening is the suggestion that President Trump will order these students to return to China since they pose a threat to our technology secrets and military intelligence.  This fear which is held by many Chinese is not unreasonable given the U.S. governments threat to deport DACA residents, and up to eleven million undocumented immigrants.

Thirdly, WE must be aware of our failures to respond to this competition over the Ocean. The goals of the Chinese were not secret.  They first began this voyage in 1986 when they declared their Marine Technology Plan, followed a year later by establishing the State Oceanic Administration.  Their early achievements make anything WE do as something tardy or late.  WE must have a general plan and response that creates a series of initiatives and concrete achievements. Educational, governmental, and private centers focusing on broad oceanic topics can become the rudder for our oceanic policies.

No matter how many trade tariffs, naval threats, spying accusations, or immigration bans we declare, they will not successfully halt or reform China’s Maritime outreach.  WE need to learn from China’s strategy, not just oppose it on specific issues.  We are in a competition for people’s admiration of our successes and accomplishments.  We need to embrace the peoples and nations of the Pacific Rim through multilateral education, trade, and respect.  Our current strategy of America First which fosters isolationism and a strategy of punishments will not deter China from its Oceanic goals.

This editorial was originally published in the Fergus Falls Daily Journal. It is reprinted with permission.

Dr. Richard Kagan

Dr. Kagan is a regular contributor to the Asian American Press and is considered a foremost scholar on Taiwan and China. He is a professor emeritus of East Asian history at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. 

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