Chinese students are under the microscope in the US. Image: iStock

The United States should reform its education system and encourage investment in innovation technology to stay ahead of the competition with China, an influential congressman said at an influential think tank webinar on human resources.

“If you ask people in D.C. what the strengths of the US are, most people would say innovation and entrepreneurship, which have driven us as a country being the forefront leader of so many things,” Andy Kim, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and House Armed Services Committee, said Thursday.

“The issue now is that we don’t know whether we will continue that,” he said in a webcast organized by the Center For Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), a US-based think tank.

Congressman Andy Kim represents the 3rd District of New Jersey Photo: csis.org

“That’s a big part of what the 5G battle was about,” Kim said. “It’s a wake-up call for us to identify what innovative leader we actually want to be. Can we put the effort behind it to achieve that?

“There is a tremendous amount of pressure in the Congress to see if we can answer that. I hope that would get us back into focus. We cannot sustain another 10 years of stagnation as a country and expect to stay on top,” he said.

Since Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada at the request of the US in December 2018, the US State Department has discouraged European countries, Australia and Canada from using Huawei equipment in their 5G rollouts.

Mike Pompeo, then-secretary of state, said in early 2019 that countries using Huawei tech could pose a security risk to the US. The Trump administration later banned the US government and suppliers from doing business with Huawei.

Apart from this, the US is competing intensely with China in the electric vehicle sector. During a visit to a Ford’s Michigan plant on Tuesday, President Joe Biden said US$174 billion from the government’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure package would be used to boost the electric vehicle sector.

“Right now, China is leading in this race – make no bones about it, it’s a fact,” Biden said. “They think they’re going to win. But I’ve got news for them – they will not win this race.”

Despite pioneering the technology, the US is behind in the race to manufacture electric vehicles and the batteries that go in them, according to a document released by the White House.

The US market share of EV sales is only one third the size of the Chinese EV market while China had about 800,000 charging points in 2020, compared with 100,000 in the US, the document showed.

Lack of confidence

Kim said that before the US could reorganize its strategies to compete with China, it should first give up its zero-sum mentality, which would stop people from looking forward.

“We have a real confidence issue about whether we are doing the right thing. We feel stuck as a country and we feel political stagnant for several decades,” Kim said.

“We watched China put together massive campaigns and strategies that ‘we are going to be the world leader in artificial intelligence and renewable energy’. But right now our politics is so dysfunctional.”

Kim added that the US may have become nearsighted and not able to think strategically. Citing the US education system as an example, he said the country had failed to implement its development plan with a national strategy.

“Education has always been our strong suit. It defines the American strength. Right now, we don’t feel we are good at STEM education. We want to promote STEM but we spontaneously say that we believe in the liberal art approach to drive creativity and innovation. We are not sure where we actually want to go.”

Chinese students

According to Open Doors data, there were 372,532 Chinese students in the US in 2019/20. Since Covid-19 hit China in January 2020, the US has suspended visa processing for Chinese students.

In May 2020, the US banned Chinese postgraduate students and researchers from studying or working in the country if they had previously been affiliated with China’s military-civil fusion strategy.

Last month, the US Congress proposed to give new authority to national security officials to scrutinize foreign gifts and contracts of over US$1 million to schools if the funding is related to research and development of “critical technologies.” The move was seen as a part of US efforts to compete with China in science and technology.

Kim said the US would lose its strategic advantage over the long run if it did not welcome Chinese students to come to study.

“As an Asian-American, I am worried about that. Because we want to be bringing in the best and the brightest from all over the world. We should not be hamstringing ourselves in terms of immigration,” he said, adding that immigration would be a tool for the US to compete with China.

Chinese students at Columbia University in New York celebrating their graduation. Photo: Xinhua

According to a recent Reuters article, it is expected that the US population will increase by 41 million people as a result of immigration by 2050 while China will lose 13 million due to emigration.

Yingyi Ma, an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University, said in a panel discussion after Kim’s session that more than 80% of Chinese students who received their doctoral degrees in the US chose to stay in America. Ma said the US would face a brain drain problem if it was not friendly to these students.

Ryan Hass, the Michael H. Armacost chair in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, said the US had a much smaller population than China but it still enjoyed a strong advantage in its technology and life science sectors.

Hass said the US should continue to attract the best students globally to replenish its talent pool.

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