In the heart of Honolulu’s Manoa Valley lies the Manoa Chinese Cemetery. Home to thousands of burials, it was founded here in 1852.

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This site is important to the Chinese community in Hawaii, which was established in the late 1700s. The seamless melding of its Chinese traditions with Honolulu’s forested landscape is a testament to long-standing Sino-Hawaiian cultural ties.

Yet mounting tensions between the United States and China may strain Hawaii’s historic connection with China.


Stephen Craven, a retired Foreign Service officer and former U.S.-China trade deal negotiator, said the tariffs from the trade war that have been implemented so far have not had an extreme impact on Hawaii.

“Most of the action … was on raw material and immediate goods, and there’s been relatively little direct impact on consumer goods, except for, you know, we’re seeing prices go up. Hawaii’s used to seeing prices go up, so nobody’s really noticing what is from the Trump tariffs and what is from any other reason.”

Further tariff increases were put on hold at June’s G-20 summit in Osaka, where President Trump and President Xi Jinping re-entered trade negotiations.

Though it may currently be protected from the full brunt of the tariffs, Hawaii is feeling the effects of the trade war in other forms.

President Donald Trump with Xi Jinping, president of the People’s Republic of China, at the start of their bilateral meeting June 29, 2019, at the G20 Japan Summit in Osaka, Japan.

Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

“Beijing takes a more holistic view of disagreements with other countries,” Craven said. Referring to trade deals with China he negotiated in the past, he said, “You cannot assume [their retaliation] will be restricted to the area that the fight is in.”

This means that the trade war’s effects may be clearer in the long-term, and that trade is not the only area to keep an eye on in the context of U.S.-China relations.


A more indirect way in which deteriorating U.S.-China relations have manifested is at the University of Hawaii Manoa, which recently closed its Chinese government-funded Confucius Institute program at the prospect of funding cuts from the federal Department of Defense.

Confucius Institutes are nonprofit educational organizations that partner the Chinese Ministry of Education with universities around the world, with the stated aim of encouraging global engagement with Chinese language and culture. UH’s Confucius Institute was the sixth of over 500 to open.

Its former director, Cynthia Ning, directs the Center for Chinese Studies at UH. She said “There’s always been some fear that when the Chinese government supports something like a Confucius Institute, that it’s something other than what it purports to be.”

Trade is not the only area to keep an eye on in the context of U.S.-China relations.

As worsening relations stoked this fear, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019 prohibited the provision of funding from the Department of Defense for language programs at campuses that housed Confucius Institutes.

Ning said that in the case of UH, fears that the Confucius Institute could become the only voice speaking about China on campus were unfounded.

“This university was founded by a Chinese American,” she said, referring to William Kwai Fong Yap, who is known as the “father of the University of Hawaii.”

In response to concerns of Chinese espionage infiltrating classified research at universities, Ning said that “in our Confucius Institute, there [was] no linkage between us and any of the STEM fields… we [were] light years away from the cutting-edge AI stuff.”

The classroom at UH Manoa dedicated to the Confucius Institute had been set up as a reading room, stocked with children’s books and other rudimentary materials to promote Chinese language skills, and was housed within the Center for Chinese Studies’ building.

UH applied for a waiver, but the Department of Defense did not grant any waiver requests.

“If you’re pitted in a battle between the Chinese government and the U.S. government, a U.S. university isn’t going to choose the Chinese government,” said Ning. “So, with great sorrow, and regret all around, yes, we closed down the Confucius Institute.”

Real Estate And Tourism

Stories of disengagement between the U.S. and China are also evident in the tourism and real estate sectors in Hawaii. In recent years, both industries had been preparing for increased engagement with China.

Organizations such as the Hawaii Tourism Authority have been steadily working on attracting Chinese visitors, a large and high-spending market of tourists. But there is anecdotal evidence that Chinese buyer activity has slowed down considerably from 2017.

“I don’t think it’s going to help real estate here on any front, not commercially nor residentially,” said commercial real estate agent Mike Perkins of the trade war. “We’re marketing a couple of big property sites…to Japanese, Chinese, South Korean [investors]. Yeah, we’re not seeing a whole lot of interest out of China. And now we definitely won’t be pursuing them.”

According to the National Travel and Tourism Office, 2018 saw a 5.7% decrease in Chinese tourists to the United States after straight decade of increase. China’s imports from the United States are “dwarfed” by its exports to the United States, said Craven.

Hostility between nations is not enough to unlink two large economies.

In the face of this imbalance, China can wield tourism as a more effective economic tool than tariffs. A travel advisory put out by the Chinese government in June warned Chinese citizens to be wary of traveling to the United States, claiming that U.S. government agencies have harassed Chinese visitors.

This is especially significant for Hawaii, where the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s website says that the main source of income is “the visitor sector which spreads itself over several industries, such as service, transportation and retail trade.”

Frank Haas, assistant dean at the University of Hawaii School of Travel Industry Management, said that data from the Hawaii tourism industry shows Chinese tourism to Hawaii has been slowing down in recent years.

Though data from 2018 and 2019 is not yet available, he said “before the tariffs, there was already a decline, and I suspect it’s even more pronounced now.” Of the travel advisory, he said “the Chinese do respond to these things, and that may be driving part of the decline.”

When asked if this situation may lead into a new Cold War, those interviewed for this article expressed doubt. The consensus seemed to be that, in an increasingly globalized world, hostility between nations is not enough to unlink two large economies.

“I’m hopeful that there are voices on the other side,” said Ning. “The way forward has to do with more engagement, not less.”

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