China-US relations

US must see common sense on visa strikes against China advisers

  • Latest action by Washington reverses reciprocal accord giving multi-entry status to passport holders, and comes during a trade war that calls out for greater dialogue between both sides
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 7:36pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2018, 10:36pm

The sound and fury of the United States trade war with China need not affect unrelated interaction with researchers and specialists who make valuable contributions to policy advice. It is important that they do not. Feedback from such informal and unofficial contact at various levels can promote understanding and even contribute to conflict resolution at the official level. Thanks to reciprocal liberalised visa rules between the two countries, communication between Chinese researchers and officials, think tanks and enterprises in the US has largely escaped the fallout from the trade war – until recently. In June, about the time President Donald Trump announced new tariffs on Chinese exports, Washington imposed tougher limits on visas in hi-tech areas. Now, in an inexplicable crackdown on important channels for policy advice, the US embassy in Beijing has revoked multiple-entry visas issued to some researchers specialising in US-China relations.

One-year limits and more rigorous scrutiny of visa applications imposed in June on graduates wanting to study in fields deemed technologically sensitive, such as robotics, not to mention other rebuffs, demonstrate the blinkered vision of Trump’s policies towards China. It is difficult to see any gains from attempts to conflate study and research with the trade conflict other than for the broader agenda of trying anything to stay ahead of China’s rise. As in the trade war, both sides are likely to end up losers.

The latest action in revoking visas for researchers reverses a reciprocal accord four years ago to give all passport holders seeking to visit for business or tourism reciprocal multi-entry status for up to 10 years, so frequent travellers did not have to keep applying for visas. Now one mainland researcher whose 10-year visa was revoked recently says the US embassy gave no explanation and, to obtain visas in the future, he will have to attend an interview with the consul general. He says revocations so far may be limited to a small number of specialists at American studies institutes, but the review process for applications is taking longer and the US has also stepped up screening of Chinese people with access to the hi-tech sector.

US voids 10-year multiple-entry visas for some Chinese researchers

Such negative vetting is not good for broader relations between the two countries. The cancellation of multiple entry visas for researchers is particularly short-sighted. At the end of the day they are just government policy advisers, not technology thieves. If denied entry, they are less likely to give Beijing sound advice. This development is damaging to relations. The US needs to invite more Chinese government advisers to the US and vice versa. We can only blame it all on the trade war and hope common sense will soon prevail, given the risk of reciprocal action by Beijing. This kind of escalation would be regrettable when we need better dialogue.