United States President Barack Obama's goal of having one million Americans learn Chinese by 2020 is noteworthy. It should strengthen cultural bridges between two great powers whose relations will help shape the global architecture of this century. That such a number is not unrealistic is shown by the success of his 2009 initiative to send American students to study in China. With an estimated 200,000 Americans already studying Chinese, it shouldn't be too hard for educational and cultural organisations to expand the appeal of learning the language by highlighting the economic and cultural benefits of bilingualism. Corporate America should lead the way in funding an effort that would allow it to explore deeply the opportunities being created as Chinese consumer tastes and needs change.
That investment could advance bilateral ties as well. What would be desirable is a world structure where language and culture also play a part to sustain economic relations between nations over the long term. The global future would then be multilingual. Singapore recognised that reality decades ago when it attuned the linguistic resources of its Chinese communities, important in themselves, to the possibilities being created by China's ascent. Malay and Tamil, together with other Indian languages, provide similar links to ancient civilisations that are reappearing as vibrant political economies today.
Another country that appreciates the value of language as a key to sound international ties and diplomatic influence is Australia. It has sought to shore up its Asian links by emphasising the study of Bahasa Indonesia, Japanese, Hindi and Chinese in schools. Language keeps nations on speaking terms even when political relations go wrong.
In that regard, the role of language in relations between America and China is special. Between them, the two countries could hold the global balance of peace and war in their hands. Theories of the rise and fall of great powers would posit a global conflict for supremacy between them. Yet, there is nothing inevitable about history. Nations, like individuals, make history at crucial moments of their own choosing. How they choose depends in part on their deployment of the cultural resources that frame their world views. Language, which opens the door to those world views, can help countries to enter into a deeper conversation with one another.
In China, ambitious students, workers and entrepreneurs are embracing English and connecting with other cultures. Yet in Asean, there is not enough effort to promote multiculturalism. Instead, some use language as a symbol of nationalism or political supremacy and resist change. In dire shortage are fervent bilingual builders of Asean bridges. Whatever language one uses, that would spell shame.