A recent report in The Wall Street Journal discussed an expected, but perhaps little understood effect of the attenuating U.S.-China relationship. The number of American students studying abroad in China has declined by 20% from its peak in 2011-2012. Over the same period, Americans studying in Taiwan have increased by 55%. This growth appears even more impressive over the long term: in 2000, only 182 Americans came to Taiwan to study. In 2018, there were 1,270 students.

Many supporters of Taiwan abroad in elite sectors formed their views from studying abroad here, especially studying Mandarin. Don Shapiro, the editor of Taiwan Business TOPICS, has written on how the Stanford Center at National Taiwan University — the predecessor of NTU’s International Chinese Language Program (ICLP) — played a central role in this. From 1963 to 1995, about 1,300 students passed through the Stanford Center.

Besides the school’s primary sponsor and namesake, elite institutions like U.C. Berkeley, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and Princeton University sent their students of Mandarin for language immersion. U.C. Berkeley sociologist Thomas B. Gold has credited the Stanford Center for training an entire generation of American scholars of China, across fields from law, anthropology, history to politics.

Of course, the Stanford Center’s alumni have also included U.S. diplomats, national security officials, and researchers in defense affairs. Many have served distinguished tenures in the U.S. government as supporters of Taiwan.

But this generation of “Taiwan Hands” in and around the U.S. government and in influential positions in U.S. life and society is not getting any younger. Many who studied at the Stanford Center are retired or approaching retirement.

Of equal importance to the Stanford Center for this generation was the Mandarin Training Center at National Taiwan Normal University, where I studied in the early 1990s. My classmates at the MTC went on to become lawyers at top firms in the U.S., executives at Amazon, and diplomats at the U.S. State Department. Virtually all have retained a positive impression towards Taiwan’s democratic and multicultural values.

Of course, with China’s rise, especially around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, young Americans became increasingly drawn to China. Much of this interest can be attributed to the expansion of U.S. investment in China and the concomitant opening of employment opportunities. It seemed for a time that Taiwan was an afterthought. In recent years, though, more Americans have started to worry about their personal safety in China. China’s heightened restrictions on the internet and speech, human rights record, the deterioration of U.S. China relations, and air pollution have all discouraged American students from going to China to study Mandarin. Meanwhile, teachers in the U.S. have not been encouraging students to go to China like they once did. Confucius Institutes have closed on many campuses.

What this amounts to for Taiwan is a great opportunity to cultivate a new generation of Americans versed in Mandarin and Taiwanese life, who will go on to become supporters of Taiwan.

To fully realize this opportunity, Taiwan should think beyond its current programs run out of the Ministry of Education. It should make this plan a matter of national security and an extension of soft power, with particular focus on drawing in students from the U.S. and Japan. There are some 50 universities in Taiwan, all equipped with resources to teach Mandarin. Here are eight policies that Taiwan can implement to seize this spotlight:

  1. As soon the pandemic permits, open up visas for students to study Mandarin in Taiwan.
  2. The Ministry of Education should increase the number of Huayu Enrichment Scholarships awarded. In 2018, this was 925. It should be at least 2,000. Additionally, the Ministry should loosen some unnecessary restrictions, such as those preventing current students studying in Taiwan from applying for the award.
  3. Commission an outside organization to promote Mandarin education in Taiwan. This could be modeled on the new Employment Gold Card Office that supports the Employment Gold Card program.
  4. Create a three year, renewable residence and work permit program for college graduates from OECD countries. These students are likely to be talented and bound for careers in which they can speak for Taiwan. Recipients who successfully complete one year of Mandarin studies would be eligible to reside and work in Taiwan for two years.
  5. Create a system of mentorship and guidance for students that can direct students into degree coursework at Taiwanese universities.
  6. Include Taiwanese Hokkien, Hakka, and Indigenous languages in the curriculum of Mandarin Training centers affiliated with universities.
  7. Encourage Mandarin language departments to collaborate with local temples, schools, and NGOs to ensure that Mandarin language students have the opportunity to experience Taiwan’s vibrant and open civil society first hand.
  8. Fund and establish Taiwan or Formosa centers in the United States at selected institutions to replace shuttered Confucius Institutes. American students should have the opportunity to study Mandarin in an environment free from political interference.

Even after the unprecedented attention Taiwan has received internationally for its performance during the pandemic, Taiwan is not going to be able to attract all of the more than 11,000 American students still studying in China. While China may no longer be as attractive to Americans as it was a decade ago, it remains the cradle of East Asian civilization and the world’s second largest economy. Nonetheless, Taiwan could reasonably seek to increase the number of American students studying in Taiwan to around 5,000. Americans and others were once a critical but largely invisible strategic and political resource. This is a unique opportunity for Taiwan to reclaim its place as a center for Chinese language studies and organically deepen relations with its most important ally. The opportunity may not come again.

This opinion originally appeared on the Apple Daily Taiwan site. Translated from the Chinese by Nicholas Haggerty.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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