Advait Arun | January 18, 2022
Inter-vulnerability in the U.S.-China Relationship
As a Master’s student in security studies at Georgetown, I necessarily spend a lot of time thinking and talking about U.S.-China relations. Most often, discussion in my classes involves treating competition between China and the U.S. as an adversarial, zero-sum game. But in the first session of our U.S.-China Dialogue Initiative, Professor Qi Haotian began by introducing a different paradigm, one in which China and the U.S. are inter-vulnerable countries. Professor Qi urged us to see beyond our own backgrounds, value diversity and collaboration and, quite simply, learn more about the world. He argued that adopting a lens of open-mindedness could unlock new ways of seeing the vast potential for U.S.-China collaboration, rather than pure competition.
This theme of inter-vulnerability persisted throughout our dialogues. In my small group, our conversation naturally gravitated towards topics like climate change, transnational threats, and the concept of global citizenship. My peers repeatedly pointed out the seemingly-obvious truth that challenges like climate change require collaboration, and subsequently argued the less-popular truth that powerful states like the U.S. and China must collaborate, at least on key issues of inter-vulnerability, or risk global consequences. My peers further suggested that competition and collaboration didn’t have to be mutually exclusive options. Rather, the U.S. and China could continue to spar, but collectively decide to de-securitize issues like climate change. I am not suggesting that the U.S. and China will or should become close allies any time soon – indeed, I think that the two states remain diametrically opposed on many issues that reflect the fundamental values of our societies and governments – but I was surprised that it took intentionally engaging in cross-cultural dialogue to even consider collaboration as a key facet of U.S.-China relations.
In our first small group session, several of the Georgetown students and I exchanged greetings in Mandarin with our Chinese counterparts. But while happy to briefly practice our limited language skills, the remainder of the dialogue took place in English thanks to the competence of the Peking University students. I was continuously grateful for their selflessness to engage in a second language and further grateful for the accommodations they continued to make throughout the initiative – for example, switching to a WhatsApp group and using Google docs instead of the popular Chinese equivalents.
I am so glad that my peers at Georgetown and PKU had the initiative and perseverance to commit to our dialogues, and I wish that more students were actively encouraged to opt-in to similar exchanges. The process of give and take necessary to enable cross-cultural dialogue isn’t easy, and opportunities to engage in conversation are often voluntary, meaning that the pool of students who do participate is likely self-selecting. But the insights that I gained about inter-vulnerability could not have been gleaned without this process and the relationships I formed with my PKU peers, meaning that cross-cultural dialogue is essential to my current understanding of China. As I continue in my studies at Georgetown and progress through a career in national security, the perspective that I gained through the U.S.-China Initiative will stay at the forefront of my mind.
Olivia Shoemaker (SSP'23) is pursuing a master's in the Georgetown University Center for Security Studies with a concentration in terrorism and sub-state violence.
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