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February 8, 2021

Students Across the Globe Compete with Ideas to Reset the U.S.-China Relationship

Over the past six months more than one hundred students from universities in the United States and China formed teams and competed in the 2020-2021 U.S.-China Student Challenge sponsored by the Georgetown University Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues.

Their task: to develop creative ideas on how to reset U.S.-China relations at a critical juncture.

The last four years have seen a drastic and rapid deterioration of the U.S.-China relationship. On issues ranging from trade and human rights to technology and peace, long-standing mechanisms for cooperation have been shelved or dismantled altogether. In the midst of a global pandemic, and with the U.S. election looming, the challenge convened twenty-six teams of four students each to explore how both countries might again identify and pursue areas for cooperation.

Through two rounds of the competition the teams crafted videos and essays outlining their ideas. Because each team was made up of two students each from U.S. and China-based universities, participants were obliged to incorporate a wide range of perspectives in order to reach consensus around a single big idea -- modelling U.S.-China dialogue in the course of the competition. In November 2020, the selection committee of Georgetown faculty advanced eight teams to the final round. The finalists submitted their refined proposals in January 2021.

Creating a Winning Concept

In February 2021, the initiative announced the two winning teams chosen from eight outstanding proposals, based on the creativity, originality, practicality, and intellectual soundness of their proposals. The winning teams were comprised of students from the Communication University of China, Duke University, Duke Kunshan University, Georgetown University, and Zhengzhou University.

One of the winning teams explored how cooperation in the space sector, utilizing existing commercial technologies, represents a promising opportunity for peaceful collaboration on scientific projects that can improve overall bilateral ties. Their proposal “Creating and Using Space for Peace” discussed the feasibility and potential benefits of the United States and China operating joint satellite technology to create large scale datasets that can be used to study climate change and emerging diseases. The program would also seek to involve the international community and use research in outer space to benefit global society.

The other winning team proposed that the United States and China should reinstate the “sportsmanship approach” and create a framework that will enable both sides to solidify communication, cooperate on shared interests, and align expectations on areas where interests diverge. Their proposal “The “Sportsmanship Approach” to U.S.-China Relations: Agreeing to Disagree on First Principles” lays out meaningful steps towards rapprochement in the current U.S.-China relationship using traditional diplomatic means that will then allow both sides to operate from a place of mutual trust on more difficult issues like technology competition.

“Once we decided to focus on a broader framework instead of a singular issue, the question was how can we learn from history but apply it to the present day? Thus, the main idea of ‘first principles’ emerged along with the theme of ‘sportsmanship’ after we discussed the impact of ping-pong diplomacy and the Shanghai Communique,” explained team member Valerie Ma (SFS’21).

Given that JP, Steven, and I are all international students at our respective schools and Huiling has extensive experience in communications and journalism, grassroots and Track II-level diplomacy were crucial elements to include. The final hurdle was how to combine these elements in a coherent strategy that respected the interests of both sides and were practically and politically feasible.

A Rewarding Experience

Designed to promote cross-cultural understanding and dialogue, the competition required students from different countries and backgrounds to work across time zones and against presumptions towards a common goal to help rebuild a positive U.S.-China relationship. While some of the teams were made up of friends from the same school, most were formed by groups of complete strangers. The initiative facilitated the formation of the teams by circulating a list of interested candidates. Joanne Kim (Duke University ‘22) enjoyed the team-building experience.

"Through each Zoom meeting, round of edits, and ideation session, we became closer, not only as a team, but as friends. A once unnatural and alien process became fun and exciting, as we became further empowered by advancing to the next round. I sincerely enjoyed this process and the opportunity to meet new, passionate students who shared similar curiosities and concerns on the subject matter. It was truly the best of both worlds - I made new friends and learned a lot about the relationship between the United States and China."

While the teams had the added challenge of working virtually to design and produce their proposals, they persevered and showed that no matter the barriers, dialogue is still possible through hard work and ingenuity. The Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues is grateful to all those who participated and hopes to continue fostering dialogue across different sectors in the U.S.-China relationship. Huiling Zhou (Communication University of China ‘21) expressed her hope for the next generation of U.S.-China leaders.

As a media and journalism student, I am very aware of the importance of interpersonal exchanges and the impact of public narratives. I believe the strong ties developed on a personal level, especially among the younger generation in China and the United States, would exert a positive influence on the bilateral relations in the future.