In the face of China’s continued rise and increased assertiveness, strengthened U.S. engagement in Asia — as evidenced by U.S. President Barack Obama’s official visit to Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar so soon after his re-election — is good news for Japan and the region, whether you refer to it as a “pivot” or a “rebalance.”

Yet, lost in the talk of reinvigorated diplomatic and defense cooperation between the United States and its Pacific allies is the need for further steps to increase critical business-to-business and people-to-people contacts. Such interactions are a valuable cornerstone of both commercial and “cultural diplomacy” and can enhance traditional diplomatic relationships in subtle, wide-ranging and more sustainable ways.

For the past seven decades, the U.S. and Japan have maintained a strong, though sometimes tumultuous, bilateral relationship. This can and needs to be built on. Education is one possible starting point — and certainly less controversial than the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks — with concrete steps needed to encourage more Americans to study in Japan and likewise, more Japanese to study in the U.S.

This would help reverse a disturbing trend that has become apparent the last few years. Fewer and fewer young people from Japan are actually studying in the U.S., in marked contrast to the vast numbers of students from China and India making their way to American universities. Likewise, fewer and fewer Americans are traveling to Japan to study, with now three times the number of Americans studying abroad in China than in Japan.

Just released data from the Institute of International Education (IIE) makes this clear. According to the IIE’s “Open Doors 2012” report on international education exchange, there are reportedly only 19,966 graduate and undergraduate students from Japan studying in the U.S. That’s a more than 6 percent drop from the year before.

In 2011, 21,290 Japanese undergraduate and graduate students reportedly studied in the U.S.; a decrease of more than 14 percent when compared to the previous year’s total. And in 2010, the number of undergraduate and graduate students from Japan in the U.S. was 24,842, which was down more than 15 percent from the year before.

The IIE study also makes similarly clear that Japan is a less attractive place for American university students, with only 4,134 reported to be studying in Japan in 2011. That’s a 33 percent decline from the year before.

Why the drop? Stagnant economies in both Japan and the U.S. and increasingly inward looking populations may well be factors. At the same time, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand are increasingly becoming popular choices for students in Asia, as these countries make concerted efforts to attract international students.

Why the sudden push for more international students by these countries? The answer to some degree is financial. International students make a significant financial contribution to local economies. While figures from national ministries are not always directly comparable, international students in Australia contributed more than $16 billion to that nation’s economy in 2011. The figure in 2010 was some $13 billion in the U.K., and $8 billion in Canada.

To lure students, some governments and universities are designing programs that cut down on paperwork and wait times by having the student visa and academic enrollment processes work more in tandem. A 2011 Australian Education International survey of some 1,330 students drawn from six Asian nations sheds light on the impact of such efforts.

Overwhelmingly, students ranked Australia’s procedures and approval waiting time as more efficient and faster than those of the U.S. Canada and the U.K. also received higher rankings than the U.S.

The U.S. can no longer afford to ignore the success other nations have had in recruiting international students, and the “soft power” advantage it gives these nations in winning the “hearts and minds” of tomorrow’s generation.

Here are three simple suggestions for a way forward.

First, take a lesson from others. The U.S. should roll out pilot programs that harmonize the university enrollment and student visa application processes in order to reduce wait times and uncertainty, as Australia has done. The U.S. student visa and application processes are separate procedures for international applicants — one managed by the U.S. State Department, the other by individual universities. A student who has been accepted to a U.S. university may well find a visa comes too late, if at all, to begin studies on time.

Second, the U.S. Department of State’s “Education USA” activities should further highlight the wide variety of U.S. educational opportunities available. The U.S. has internationally recognized state colleges that would be the envy of many nations and would welcome more international students, including from Japan. Community colleges should also be actively promoted abroad. They provide affordable and quality technical and vocational education, and are a proven pathway to four-year universities for those students interested in furthering their education.

Finally, U.S. policymakers should recognize that international education is a competitive advantage and must be included as a key component of the U.S. policy pivot to Asia. An inability to adapt to this reality is costing the U.S. opportunities to re-energize valuable cultural linkages in Japan and throughout Asia today that could well pay dividends tomorrow.

More than ever, it’s a time for a business and education pivot by the U.S. to Japan and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Curtis S. Chin, a senior fellow and executive-in-residence at the Asian Institute of Technology, served as U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank (2007-2010) under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Jose B. Collazo is a frequent commentator on Southeast Asia.

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