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Tips for Students: Exploring US-China Relations

Highlights from Expert Series

The following article shares highlights and insights from one of our Expert Series events, which are exclusive for Young Scholars and their parents.

Overview: Making Sense of the US-China Relationship

This talk provided an overview of current developments in the US-China relationship, often considered the world’s most important. The era of engagement that guided US policy since President Nixon has ended, replaced by what some have termed “great power competition.” This talk explored both the rationale for engagement with China, what changed, and a review of key dimensions of the relationship. These dimensions include:

  • Values: are democracy and human rights universal or particular to cultural context?
  • Global leadership: how is the rise of China affecting US relationships with other countries and changing the governance of institutions like the United Nations?
  • Military: how does the US manage the risk of a conflict over Taiwan and other disputed territories in the region?
  • Economic: will China become the world’s most powerful economy and, if so, will it leverage that power at others’ expense?
  • Science: is scientific collaboration still possible or is the risk that China uses exchange to advantage its military/industry too great a risk?
  • Technology: will China’s Great Firewall, censorship and disinformation efforts, and hacking lead to a “splinternet”?
  • Climate: can the US and China successfully cooperate to prevent climate change?
  • Soft power: can people-to-people and cultural exchange still facilitate mutual understanding or will we all be forced to ‘pick a side’?

For nearly fifty years, there was broad continuity in American policy towards China. Engagement was pursued for three reasons: initially as a hedge against the Soviet Union; with the belief that it could transform China into a prosperous, and then democratic, society; and the recognition that it was simply to big to exclude from the community of nations.

Three factors most influenced the end of engagement. First was the 2008 financial crisis, which affirmed Beijing’s belief that the United States had begun a period of terminal decline at the same time China’s economy and military capabilities were ascendant. Second, was the rise of Xi Jinping, who reversed any trend towards domestic openness and pursued a more assertive foreign policy. Third, was the election of Donald Trump, whose policies China saw as an attempt to contain its rise, but also further evidence of weakness in American society and global leadership.

After providing a brief overview of key dimensions of the relationship, we focused on three: the science, technology, and soft power dimensions. In science, China continues to invest tremendous resources in research and development, with a focus on obtaining leadership in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and green technology. Its ambitions – and the “dual-use” military implications of many of these domains have forced the government to scrutinize whether scientific exchange, generally considered a public good, must be restricted in the name of national security.

The technology deep dive focused specifically on the internet. We explored how the “Great Firewall” or “Walled Garden” served two purposes: one to maximize the Chinese government’s control over information, but also to allow it to foster its own technology champions. We reviewed multiple instances of hacking attributed to China in recent years and the motivations for them, examined China’s attempts to influence global discourse on social media, and discussed why some see popular app TikTok  as a national security risk.

In the soft power domain, we opened with a case study of Eileen Gu, highlighting the reality that increased tensions between the two nations have created challenges for individuals, particularly in the Chinese diaspora, who have sought to act as a constructive bridges. We viewed the role that universities, tourism, and Hollywood all play in facilitating understanding.

Despite the pessimism that now clouds the relationship, the talk made a case that there were reasons for optimism. The first was the opportunity a rivalry with China presents for American self-reflection and domestic renewal. We highlighted the still great many areas where collaboration was possible. And we reviewed research that suggests that engagement did change the outlook of many of China’s people, even if it has not changed how the country is governed.

Things Students Can Do to Study US-China Relations Further

Potential intersections with China abound in our lives. It is often most natural and fulfilling to take a personal interest – perhaps, art – and use that as the lens to approach the country. To stay on top of the latest developments, there are many great newsletters, such as supChina, and podcasts. Meaningful study of China ultimately invites learning the language and the opportunity, one hopes soon to resume, to travel. Internships in government or think tanks are also a terrific way to gain exposure and analytical skills.

Additional Resources

Recommended books include Everything Under the Heavens (Howard French), Superpower Showdown (Bob Davis and Lingling Wei), Wealth and Power (Orville Schell and John Delury), The Party (Richard McGregor), Age of Ambition (Evan Osnos), China’s Economy (Arthur Kroeber), The Souls of China (Ian Johnson), and The Avoidable War (Kevin Rudd), The Search for Modern China (Jonathan Spence), and Deng Xiaoping (Ezra Vogel). Also helpful is the State Department history of US-China relations. Finally, I write a blog at


Authored by: Kyle Hutzler
Bio: Kyle Hutzler is a management consultant and researcher focused on US-China relations. He has experience across government, the academy, and the private sector, including the United States International Trade Commission; Stanford’s Hoover Institution; the South China Morning Post; and McKinsey & Company. His work has been featured in multiple outlets and published reports. Kyle earned a BA from Yale, an MA from Tsinghua University in Beijing, an MBA from Stanford, and was a 2008 Davidson Fellow.


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