December 2018


Students will:

  • Consider the reasons for current trade tensions between the United States and China.
  • Identify and assess U.S. trade policy toward China.
  • Examine primary sources from U.S. officials, scholars, journalists, and business leaders supporting and opposing Trump administration trade policies with China.
  • Use active listening, critical thinking, and persuasive argument skills to explore, discuss, and evaluate arguments related to Trump administration trade policies with China.


Handout – U.S.-China Trade Tensions

Handout – Key Terms (optional)

Handout – Arguments Supporting or Opposing a Trade War

Handout – Structured Academic Controversy Notes

Videos—These short videos from the Choices Program are used in this lesson:

In the Classroom

1. Understanding U.S.-China Trade Tensions

Activate Prior Knowledge—Begin class by asking students if they have heard or read about trade tensions between the United States and China. Invite students to share what they know with a classmate and then with the class. Explain to students that in order to better understand U.S.-China trade relations and current tensions, they will have an opportunity to read a short summary, watch some brief videos, and explore different perspectives on the Trump administration’s approach to addressing concerns about China.

Read the Summary—Students should read the handout “U.S.-China Trade Tensions” and underline or highlight important ideas. Clarify any questions. It may be helpful for students to refer to the “Key Terms” handout as they read.

Video Overviews—Show the three Choices videos and invite students to consider how this information relates to their reading. After viewing the videos, pose the following questions for discussion:

  • How has global trade affected workers in some areas of the United States?
  • What are some ways in which trade connects the Chinese and U.S. economies?
  • How is Chinese government involvement in the economy and in citizens’ lives similar to or different from that of the United States?

2. Exploring Different Perspectives

Explain to the class that they will be working in small groups. Divide the class into teams of four (groupings can be flexible but small groups tend to work best). This structured academic controversy activity will require students to use active listening, critical thinking, and persuasive argument skills. Tell students that they will begin by working with a partner within their small group.

Each student pair will explore key arguments either supporting or opposing a trade war with China. Distribute “Arguments Supporting the Use of a Trade War” to one pair within each small group. Distribute “Arguments Opposing the Use of a Trade War” to the other pair within each group. Distribute “Structured Academic Controversy Notes” to all students. As they read, encourage students to pay attention to the authors and sources of the quotations. Students in each pair should identify and discuss the important issues and evidence related to their side of the controversy, adding notes in the relevant section on the first page of the structured academic controversy handout. Students also may draw from the reading and videos to formulate their arguments. (Ideally students should have these conversations out of earshot of the other pair to whom they will be presenting their arguments.)

Next, arrange seating so opposing viewpoint pairs face one another. Ask each pair to present its most important ideas to the pair representing the opposing viewpoint. Students should follow the guidelines on the handout regarding instructions and time allotted for each part of the activity.

After each pair has presented its main arguments, students should conference with their partner. They should star or underline the most compelling arguments they heard from the other side. Then have the pairs in each group share with each other what they understood to be the most compelling arguments and evidence from the other side.

Encourage students to have an open discussion on the issue in their small groups, sharing their own views and asking questions of one another. Remind students of the guidelines for respectful behavior outlined on the handout.

Ask students to discuss the following questions either in their structured controversy groups or in a whole-class discussion.

  • What should be the primary goal(s) of U.S. economic policy toward China?
  • Which U.S. actions do students support?
  • Which U.S. actions concern students?
  • What positive or negative effects might a trade war have on the United States? China? Global trade?
  • The sources are limited to statements by U.S. officials, scholars, business leaders, and journalists. What other viewpoints would be valuable to consider to more fully understand this issue?
  • Under what conditions might a trade war escalate further? How might the United States or China de-escalate tensions?
  • How might U.S. economic policy goals be tied to other U.S. foreign policy goals in Asia (for example, seeking China’s support regarding the North Korean nuclear crisis)?
  • Are there other policies students believe the United States should pursue?

Encourage students to share their views by responding to the following writing prompt: Will a trade war with China help the Trump administration reach its policy objectives?  This may be either handwritten or typed.

You may wish to collect students’ notes to assess for accuracy and completion.

Extra Challenge

Watch the PBS NewsHour video “How Trump’s tariffs changed the fates of these two factories to examine how tariffs on imported steel have led to quite different results for two industries in Missouri. Alternatively, the PBS NewsHour video “Will Trump’s tariffs help U.S. workers? It could be a wash explores the impact of tariffs meant to protect U.S. jobs manufacturing washing machines. For either video, ask students to identify the effects of tariffs on companies, workers, and consumers in the United States. Do they believe the benefits of tariffs outweigh the downsides?

Students might research the application of tariffs throughout U.S. history. The Smithsonian article “A History of America’s Ever-Shifting Stance on Tariffs” provides interesting historical context and might serve as a springboard for further research.


This Teaching with the News lesson was written by Amy Sanders, Choices Teaching Fellow.

Image Credit: White House. Public Domain.

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