U.S.-China 21: The Future of U.S.-China Relations Under Xi Jinping

Toward a New Framework of Constructive Realism for a Common Purpose

A Summary Report for the Harvard Kennedy School’s
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

The future relationship between China and the United States is one of the mega-changes and mega-challenges of our age. China’s rise is the geopolitical equivalent of the melting polar ice caps: gradual change on a massive scale that can suddenly lead to dramatic turns of events. Can this defining trend of the 21st century be managed peacefully?

In 2014, as a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, ASPI President Kevin Rudd has studied this question and concluded that China’s rise can be managed peacefully — if Washington and Beijing commit to placing their relationship on a stable, long-term footing. The choice is stark: Either China and the United States will author a common narrative of mutually beneficial achievements, or they will drift toward conflict.

While the likelihood of near-term conflict is low, leaders on both sides of the Pacific are well aware of “Thucydides’ Trap,” the historical pattern of conflict that occurs when rising powers challenge ruling ones. Avoiding that trap means answering key questions about U.S.-China relations:

  • Is China’s economic rise sustainable?
  • How will China exert power differently under Xi Jinping?
  • What does Beijing regard as Washington’s grand strategy toward China — and vice versa?
  • What are the risks of armed conflict?
  • How will China’s growing clout impact the regional and global order?
  • Can both sides develop a common strategic narrative?

U.S.-China 21 is intended to help policymakers anticipate and respond to one of the great challenges of our day. In his summary report of a forthcoming longer work, Kevin Rudd attempts to chart a different course for the future by recommending a common strategic narrative to guide the U.S.-China relationship. Centered on the concept of “constructive realism for a common purpose,” this framework is designed to be equally explicable, understandable, and acceptable in both languages and both political systems. The framework is capable of managing both strategic divergence and strategic cooperation at the same time, but still within a common purpose of preserving a functional order for the future.


The following files have been provided by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Summary Report in English (PDF, 2.9MB)

Summary Report in Chinese (PDF, 5.6MB)

One-Page Brief (PDF, 292KB)

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