BASS Social Anthropology and Philosophy

Year of entry: 2022

Course unit details:
US-China Relations: Escaping the Thucydides Trap

Course unit fact file
Unit code POLI32142
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This course will introduce students to the history and current state of US-China relations. With China’s rise and America’s perceived decline, does the shifting balance of power between  them make a great power conflict more likely?


The unit aims to:


This course will introduce students to the history and current state of US-China relations. With China’s rise and America’s perceived decline, does the shifting balance of power between  them make a great power conflict more likely?

The course’s primary goal, however, is not to convey knowledge. To manage US-China relations and avoid a 21st century US-China conflict, scholars and practitioners alike need to move beyond mere knowledge acquisition to seek understanding. That is, they must seek to see the world and themselves through the prism of the Other’s identities and ideologies.

Our focus, therefore, will be on understanding the Chinese and American perspectives on US-China relations. We will engage Chinese constructions of their civilizational and national identities—and the role that America plays in those discourses. Do Chinese Occidentalist constructions of China as “harmonious” (¿) require a “hegemonic” (¿) America? Does China’s anti-imperialist nationalism require that Chinese view America as the “Beautiful imperialist” (¿¿)?  To address such questions, we will explore contemporary Chinese narratives about the imperial Chinese tributary system and the early modern “Century of Humiliation,” before turning to US-China relations under Mao, Deng, and Xi today.

Studying the American perspective on US-China relations will also reveal a great deal about what it means to be British. Can we move beyond the Liberalism that powerfully shapes Anglo-American worldviews to better understand China in its own terms? If so, must we abandon our Liberal values?


Teaching and learning methods

The class will consist of ten two-hour lectures and ten one-hour tutorials for each student. Lectures will include a mix of traditional lecture material, interactive question and answer sessions, small tasks in break-out groups, and videos. Tutorials will be largely student-led, often involving group work.

The Blackboard site for the course will contain links to further sources and websites. Lecture and seminar material will also be posted on the site. 

Knowledge and understanding

  • International relations (IR) theories will be critically engaged.
  • Gain knowledge about the history and current state of US-China relations, and a better understanding of the drivers of each side’s views.

Intellectual skills

  • Critical thinking will be emphasized. Students will be taught to be disciplined readers and writers, thinking through issues independently.
  • Normative and ethical issues will also be emphasized. Does seeking understanding require condoning abhorrent views? What role do ethical issues play in the study of international affairs?

Practical skills

  • Critical reading
  • Effective writing

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Public speaking
  • Mature, respectful debate
  • Teamwork

Assessment methods

Readings review essay 25%, 1,500 words (review a week’s tutorial readings) – due in time to get feedback before submitting long essay

Research essay 40%, 2,500 words

Group presentation 25%

Class participation  10%

Feedback methods

Politics staff will provide feedback on written work within 15 working days of submission via Blackboard (if submitted through Turnitin).

Students should be aware that all marks are provisional until confirmed by the external examiner and the final examinations boards in June.

For modules that do not have examination components the marks and feedback for the final assessed component are not subject to the 15 working day rule and will be released with the examination results. This applies to Semester 2 modules only. Semester one modules with no final examination will have their feedback available within the 15 working days.

You will receive feedback on assessed essays in a standard format. This will rate your essay in terms of various aspects of the argument that you have presented your use of sources and the quality of the style and presentation of the essay. If you have any queries about the feedback that you have received you should make an appointment to see your tutor. Tutors and Course Convenors also have a dedicated office hour when you can meet with her/him to discuss course unit specific problems and questions.

On assessments submitted through Turnitin you will receive feedback via Blackboard. This will include suggestions about ways in which you could improve your work in future. You will also receive feedback on non-assessed coursework, whether this is individual or group work. This may be of a more informal kind and may include feedback from peers as well as academic staff

Recommended reading

  • James Mann, About Face: A history of America’s curious relationship with China from Nixon to Clinton (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1999)
  • Peter Gries, China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics and Diplomacy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004)
  • Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 20
Tutorials 10
Independent study hours
Independent study 170

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Peter Gries Unit coordinator

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