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The US needs more China hands

In 1929 the US Navy sent a group of intelligence officers to Japan for three years to study the language. In retrospect, it was a far-sighted move.

Fluent in Japanese, two of those officers would go on to play a critical role at a critical moment in World War II. Having partly broken Japan’s military code, they were able to give the Navy’s Pacific commander, Admiral Chester Nimitz, advance warning of the June 1942 Japanese attack on Midway Island. The resulting US victory at the Battle of Midway was a turning point in the war.

The moral of the story: Knowing a country’s language is fundamental to competing with it. And it’s much easier to master a language if you live in the country and are constantly hearing and speaking it.

That moral remains relevant today. The current competitor – hopefully not on the battlefield but certainly in technology, economics and diplomacy – is China. It’s especially relevant because, unfortunately, the Chinese seem to have learned this lesson better than we have.

There are only 800 Americans studying in China. That’s up a tick from the pandemic, when there were 500, but down from the 2011-12 school-year peak of around 15,000. There are 300,000 Chinese studying in the US.

Of course, many Americans are studying Chinese at universities in the US. But to perfect and retain the language, they need to use it every day. They need time in China.

Study-abroad and other people-to-people exchange programs are often touted as promoting mutual understanding and avoiding war. It’s harder to demonize another people when you’ve gotten to know some of them personally, the theory goes.

Learning a foreign language and culture is also a big plus when competing with a foreign country, militarily and otherwise.