U.S. – China Trade Simulation

This simulation was developed with support from the KU Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) and the KU Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS), a Department of Education Title VI funded National Resource Center. It is designed as a scaffolded classroom assignment where the students can learn about what’s going on in the Trade War between the United States and the People’s Republic of China and also reflect on theoretical concepts about trade and investment politics. It is both a teaching tool and also a lab experiment to capture how ideological divides play out in domestic politics and international bargaining in the US-China trade war. The simulation has been successfully implemented at KU, UCSD, Princeton, Arkansas, and UBC.

Comprehensive Lesson Plan


U.S. China Trade War

Activity Type



High School Social Science

Time Requirement

1-2 weeks, depending on how much research and writing is assigned for homework vs. in-class

Sources Used

PBS Frontline “Trump’s Trade War

Lesson Objectives

Students will be able to…

  1. Define tariffs
  2. Describe the domestic politics and international negotiations involved in trade agreements
  3. Collaborate with peers to research, discuss, and present information from one perspective on the issue of tariffs and trade between the U.S. and China

Essential Questions

  • How do countries conduct trade?
  • In what ways do domestic and international politics influence one another when it comes to the international exchange of goods and services?

Required Materials

Reference Materials 

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Educational Standards & Benchmarks

5.3 The student will investigate and connect dynamic relationships to contemporary issues.

5.4 The student will use their understanding of dynamic relationships to make a claim or advance a thesis using evidence and argument.

WHST.11-12.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

WHST.11-12.8 Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and limitations of each source in terms of the specific task, purpose, and audience; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and overreliance on any one source and following a standard format for citation.




  1. Administer the Student Pre-Simulation Survey which measures students’ understanding of U.S. – China relations and trade.
  2. Divide class into six groups. These groups will work together to represent the interests of one group during the trade talk simulations. Explain to students that they will collaborate to determine the interests of their assigned group and will negotiate with other interest groups to try and develop a trade policy that will benefit their group during simulated trade talks later in the week. The interest groups are:
    • U.S. businesses and workers who benefit from trade with China
    • U.S. businesses and workers who are harmed by trade with China
    • U.S. national security interests
    • Chinese businesses and consumers who benefit from trade with the U.S.
    • Chinese businesses and consumers who are harmed by trade with the U.S.
    • Chinese national security interests.
  1. Depending on the level of the class, it may be helpful to assign roles within each interest group. For instance, you might have one individual tasked with taking notes from group discussions, one individual tasked with reporting the group’s ideas and demands to other groups, and one individual tasked with tracking research and maintaining citations. The roles and numbers of students in each group will be determined by class size, composition, and teacher preference.
  2. Distribute the appropriate briefing document to the group assigned to the interest described. Allow students time to read and discuss their group’s briefing document, either in class or as homework.
  1. Watch PBS Frontline: Trump’s Trade War (54 minutes)
  2.  Ask students to reflect on the information in the documentary and to relate the information to the position briefings they read in their groups. Ensure that students understand what tariffs are, some of the ways they are used by national governments, and how tariffs impact daily life for workers and consumers.

Sample questions to guide discussion:

  • Who participates in determining trade policy?
  • How does international trade impact our daily lives?
  • What are the benefits and drawbacks of raising tariffs for the government?
  • What are the consequences of tariffs for workers and consumers when tariffs go up and down?

Homework: Locate and share with your group 3-5 news articles that relate to/support the position your group has been assigned to represent. Based on these articles, make a list of 3-5 key desires of the interest group you have been assigned. For example, the group representing U.S. businesses harmed by trade with China might ask for additional tariffs or regulations on particular industries or products.

  1. Guide class through the attached PowerPoint offering examples of reasonable/unreasonable demands in trade simulations.

Combine groups A,B, & C representing the U.S. and groups D, E, & F, representing China. Within the country groups, each interest group should negotiate for their assigned position. Together, the large groups should develop a one-page country position paper that presents the concessions desired by the country in the trade talks. The position paper is due by the end of class. Ideally, the teacher will read and provide feedback on the position papers before the next class meeting to check for understanding and ensure that all necessary aspects are included in the position papers.

Country groups (ABC and DEF) will once again work together to develop their strategy for the simulation, which will occur during the next class. Part of developing the negotiation strategy is understanding the position of the other side. The country groups should exchange position papers, read the other country’s perspective, and develop a strategy. Within groups, consider:

  • Which concessions are most important to us?
  • Which concessions are most important to the other side?
  • What does the other country want that we can give to them?
  • What do they want that conflicts with what we want?
  • How might we convince them, through threats of damage or offers of rewards, to adopt the concessions that are most important to us?

By the end of class, each country group should have a written outline of a plan for negotiations that includes three sections:

  1. Concessions we demand.
  2. Concessions we would like to have but can negotiate on
  3. Concessions we can offer

Hold the trade talk simulation.

  1. Set up the room to allow students to group by country and comfortably discuss within and between groups.
    • The goal of the discussion is for the two sides to create a joint statement that outlines the concessions both sides agree to. This can be written formally or in a list, depending on teacher preference and student level.
  2. Structure the discussion using a timer. You may have students trade off on speaking roles.
    • Allow each side to present their demands.
    • Allow sides to break for discussion with their own teams and develop offers and counter offers based on what the other team has demanded.
    • Once again allow teams to discuss with one another and make offers/demands
    • Allow sides time to discuss
  3. Continue this way until the teams reach a joint statement of concessions that each side agrees to. The teacher might facilitate this by keeping notes on a white board or projector. The level of the class should determine how involved the teacher is in guiding the debate, recording agreements, and facilitating student participation. Ideally, students would run the discussion themselves, but realistically they may need help to reach a joint agreement. A running list of demands and concessions might help to keep the discussion focused and moving forward.
  4. Administer Student Post-Simulation Survey!
  1. For students: Each student should write a one-page participant memoir that explains and defends their role during the trade talk simulation. Students should make specific reference to their group’s position, references they used to help develop the position, and to the process of negotiating during the simulation.
  2. For educators: Fill out the  Educator’s Post-Simulation Survey!

To obtain the PDF version of the Lesson Plan, please contact Sadia Akhter Aurna, IRC’s Global Education Coordinator. 

About the Author

Dr. Jiakun Jack Zhang is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas (KU) and Director of the KU Trade War Lab. He is a 2021-2022 Wilson China Fellow. His research explores the political economy of trade and conflict in East Asia. He was a postdoctoral research fellow in the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance at Princeton University and has been the recipient of various grants and awards, including the Fulbright U.S. Student Grant and the Minerva Research Initiative University Research Grant.

About the Sponsor

Founded in 1959, the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Kansas is the major academic hub and premiere outreach network in the Great Plains region, collaborating effectively with partners to disseminate knowledge about East Asian languages and cultures to build global competencies in the 21st century. The Center is funded by a Department of Education Title VI grant to serve as a National Resource Center with the mission of increasing knowledge of East Asian histories, languages, cultures, and current events in the region and beyond. Part of our mission is to collaborate with area educators to enhance international content by:

  • Offering workshops to bring East Asian content into K-12 classrooms
  • Providing lesson plans and modules to support curriculum internationalization
  • Bolstering K-12 and community college DEI initiatives
  • Creating unique classroom experiences for students to experience East Asia

For more information, please reach out to us at ceas@ku.edu.