People-level connections crucial, US and China cannot afford depopulating relationship, says US envoy Nicholas Burns

People-level connections crucial, US and China cannot afford depopulating relationship, says US envoy Nicholas Burns

People-level connections crucial, US and China cannot afford depopulating relationship, says US envoy Nicholas Burns

US ambassador to China Nicholas Burns has said that the US and China must resume people-level connections to prevent the delicate relationship from “getting knocked off the course again.”

In an interview to South China Morning Post, Burns said, “The people-to-people exchange is the ballast to keep the relationship stable.”

“Our two governments have a competitive and contested relationship, but at the people-to-people level, it’s really important that we stay connected,” added Burns.

Burns, who took part in the summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Joe Biden in San Francisco earlier this month, said both sides noted the importance of the two leaders’ commitment to bringing back people-level exchange.

In November 2022, during their first in-person summit in Bali, Xi and Biden had decided to cultivate “constructive relations.”

However, the goodwill was short-lived when the US found what appeared to be a Chinese spy balloon in American territory. Although Beijing claimed that the balloon had accidentally entered US airspace and was meant for civilian use, the episode brought the relationship to an all-time low.

Many people believed that the leaders’ meeting in San Francisco served as the strongest barrier preventing bilateral relations from further deteriorating.

“It is important for us to continue the momentum [after the San Francisco summit] so we do not get knocked off the course again. The key is to keep the two governments and the senior officials in close communication,” Burns told South China Morning Post.

Burns said after the pandemic caused a sharp drop in people-to-people contact, it is important that it is revived again.

China remained America’s largest source of foreign students this year, but the numbers have dropped significantly over the past three years.

Both countries also agreed to significantly increase direct flights from next year, to facilitate exchanges and business travel.

“Before the Covid-19 pandemic, we had (a total of) 345 flights per week. That number dropped to 12 at one point, and now it’s 70,” Burns said.

Enrollments of Chinese students in the US, once reaching nearly half a million annually, fell below 300,000 in 2022, as reported by the Institute of International Education.

The current number of American students in China is significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels, noted Burns.

Emphasising the importance of American students understanding China and speaking Mandarin, Burns expressed concern about the potential consequences if the next generation lacks this knowledge. He called for increased recruitment of young people with expertise in China.

“We cannot have the next generation of American students not know about China and not speak Mandarin. Otherwise, we will feel the impact in 20 to 30 years. We need more young people to understand China. We need to recruit people who are China specialists,” he said.

In response to President Xi’s goal of bringing 50,000 American students to China in the next five years, Burns acknowledged that achieving this target might take time but found it encouraging.

Despite a desire to improve relations with Beijing, Burns asserted that the US would not remain silent on human rights issues. President Biden had raised concerns about Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong during the summit meeting with President Xi, highlighting the significance of human rights and democracy to the United States.

Addressing investment restrictions and sanctions on advanced chip technology to China, Burns affirmed that the US would not apologize for export controls and restrictions. He underscored the importance of safeguarding national security, stating that certain technologies, including artificial intelligence, could potentially enhance the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army.

“National security is non-negotiable,” Burns declared.

With inputs from agencies