An ambitious new Project on the Future of U.S.-China Relations

The initiative brings together ‘next generation’ thinkers—scholars and practitioners—to address the complex and changing relationship between the two countries.

Chinese flag flies in front of modern skyscrapers
Experts at Penn’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China (CSCC) have launched a new initiative to help chart the future of U.S.-China relations.

The relationship between the United States and China has been increasingly strained during the last several years. In recent months, tensions have escalated between the world’s two largest economies and most powerful countries over a host of issues, including COVID-19, the Trump administration’s effort to ban Chinese social media apps Tik Tok and WeChat, China’s handling of Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and the continuing trade war.

The policy of engagement that has defined the U.S. approach to China for four decades has crumbled, leading to bipartisan support for a tougher approach, and especially hawkish policies from the current administration. To address these challenges, experts at Penn’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China (CSCC) have launched the Project on the Future of U.S.-China Relations, a new initiative to cultivate fresh voices and original thinking to help chart the future of U.S.-China relations and to recommend policies.

Together, the U.S. and China represent 40% of global economic output. They increasingly view one another as rivals and national security threats, and addressing global challenges including climate change and pandemics depend on both countries’ participation. 

“There has never been a more critical time in recent memory to encourage scholarship that examines the underpinnings of the U.S.-China relationship,” says Amy Gadsden, associate vice provost for global initiatives and executive director of Penn China initiatives. “We are fortunate that the provost’s China Research and Engagement Fund (CREF) is able to support this and other projects that deepen our understanding of China.”

The Project on the Future of U.S.-China Relations launched in June with a conference featuring 20 “next generation” China scholars and analysts who presented drafts of papers that will develop actionable recommendations in U.S. policy toward China in national security, trade and competitiveness, technology, human rights, climate and environment, research, education, and academic freedom.

"The project reflects the confluence of several factors,” says Jacques deLisle, the Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law and director of CSCC, including “the need for new, specialized, and deep thinking on the pressing issues in the U.S.’s China policy; the remarkable convening power that CSCC has developed during the last eight years as an interdisciplinary program for research—much of it focused on policy-relevant issues and set forth in our annual conference volumes featuring the work of leading scholars in the field; and the expertise on key issues we are fortunate to have at Penn.” 

On Friday, the project will debut its website and present the first in a series of webinars showcasing the policy papers, with a panel on “New Perspectives on U.S.-China Relations: National Security.” 

The presentation will be moderated by Avery Goldstein, the David M. Knott Professor of Global Politics and International Relations, and will feature Jessica Chen Weiss, associate professor of government, Cornell University; Ryan Hass, fellow and Michael H. Armacost chair in foreign policy, Brookings Institution; Joel Wuthnow, senior research fellow, Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, National Defense University; and Fiona Cunningham, assistant professor of political science and international affairs, The George Washington University.

“As changes in China and the United States reshape international politics, the time is ripe for fresh perspectives on the challenges facing both countries,” Goldstein says. “Our project brings together the next generation of leading experts who will inform the debate about a wide range of critical choices to be made in the new era of U.S.-China relations.”

In addition to CREF, the project is also supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.

“At a moment of growing tension in U.S.-China relations, the fresh insights and policy recommendations of a rising generation of China experts are welcome and needed," says Helena Kolenda, the Luce Foundation’s program director for Asia.

The webinars will be held every Friday until the U.S. presidential election, says Neysun Mahboubi, CSCC research scholar and host of the Center’s podcast.

"It is tremendously exciting to help cultivate and also be a part of a new cohort of thinkers about the U.S.-China relationship, who can be expected to help shape the future course of the relationship in the years ahead," he says. 

Organizers deLisle, Goldstein, and Mahboubi hope to bring participants to campus in June for an in-person conference. They also have funding from the provost’s office to take the group to Beijing in the fall of 2021 to discuss the papers with a similar group of young Chinese scholars, should the pandemic and political atmosphere permit it.

Ultimately, the goal is to reach policymakers in Washington and elsewhere, as well as the general public, providing those audiences with ideas that are innovative, relevant to policy, and rooted in specialized expertise.