“The US-Taiwan Education Initiative is set against the backdrop of two distinct but related trends,” explained AIT director William Brent Christensen.
“Universities around the world have been closing Confucius Institutes”
“First, universities around the world, including many in the United States, have been closing Confucius Institutes because of their role in censorship and malign influence campaigns by the People’s Republic of China.”
At the same time, with the Taiwanese government aiming to make the country completely bilingual by 2030, the initiative would expand options for Taiwanese wishing to improve their English and gain experience abroad.
CIs have become a target for those concerns about Chinese interference in academia along with China’s Thousand Talents Program and, to a lesser extent, Chinese Students and Scholars Associations.
Supporters of CI programs argue that “critics have completely misunderstood what CIs are doing” and that “in the name of academic freedom, language and culture-based exchange programs are being flagged as inappropriately political”.
Taiwan can play a key role in addressing interest in Mandarin language learning that has not been “dampened” by the closure of CIs, Christensen said, while the US is “eager to help provide English language instruction”.
As the relationship between the US and China continues to deteriorate, the US has found itself moving closer to Taiwan – which is claimed as a province by China – despite it not officially recognising the island as a sovereign nation.
Last month the two countries signed an MOU promoting cooperation in fields such as health, tech and security, while a bill currently going through the US legislature includes provisions for continuing arms sales to Taiwan and the expansion of military partnership.
The MOU also promotes Taiwan’s Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language, an alternative to China’s Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi. The former was sat by 4,305 candidates worldwide in 2017, compared to 6.5 million sitting the HSK.
However, getting students to switch to the TOCFL may prove a challenge as those preparing for the HSK use China’s simplified characters as opposed to Taiwan’s traditional writing system.
Cooperation and expansion will also be pursued for the Critical Language Scholarship Program for US students learning languages “critical to national security and economic prosperity”, the MOE Huayu Enrichment Scholarship that offers funding and stipends for studying Mandarin in Taiwan, and several other existing projects.
The US further said it would increase funding of the Fulbright program – which has been shut down in China and Hong Kong – and examine opportunities to “move more US government-sponsored Chinese language programs to Taiwan”.
The number of Taiwanese participants on the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant Program is expected to more than double next year, in part due to the suspensions in China and Hong Kong.
The US is however not the only country with which Taiwan has been seeking closer educational cooperation.
In October, the Ministry of Education signed a Letter of Intent with the British Office Taipei “with a specific focus on English language teaching, learning and assessment”, which will also offer support in helping Taiwan achieve its 2030 targets.