Amid swirling questions about how China’s rise affects the U.S., its allies and countries in the Global South, William & Mary’s Global Research Institute and AidData convened an audience of scholars, policymakers and thought leaders to engage in evidence-informed dialogue.
During the June 22-24 conference at the W&M School of Education, participants worked to separate fact from fiction while analyzing China’s growing global influence through plenary sessions, working groups, keynote addresses and poster presentations.
“We’re hearing that the era of great power competition is back, which begs the question ‘Is contested cooperation still possible?’” Provost Peggy Agouris said. “As we seek to make sure that democracy remains a reality worldwide, it is up to all of us to develop a mutual understanding of the pressing challenges that we face.”
With democracy as a cornerstone of the university’s 2026 strategic plan, the conference’s theme aligned with broader community objectives, Agouris said. Hosting contemporary policy debates at William & Mary can also steer the direction of cutting-edge research, said Steve Hanson, former vice provost for academic and international affairs.
“This is a place where we can have nonpartisan, respectful dialogue and passionately hold different points of view,” Hanson said. “The suggestions, ideas and inspirations that come out of these gatherings feed right back into faculty-student mentored research projects. It is our students who drive the research. They are the future leaders.”
Assessing strengths and differences
During day one’s keynote, speakers reflected on indicators of China’s rise — which an Economist editor, Simon Rabinovitch, described as a shift from “stakeholder” to “power-broker.”
“If you survey roughly 190 different countries, more than 130 of them trade more with China than they do with the U.S.,” Rabinovitch said. “The outstanding stock of China’s aid profile is larger than the World Bank’s.”
As China has accrued greater power and influence over the past few decades, economic statecraft and other elements of U.S. foreign policy have grown weaker, Pakistani Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed said.
“The U.S. is not in a position to compete with China,” Hussain Sayed said. “China has already raced ahead. The U.S. has only now woken up to the reality of the rise of China because the U.S. was too busy after 9/11 fighting wars in the Middle East region … while the Chinese were spending $4 trillion on different investments all over the world.”
In terms of market access and top-quality education, the U.S. still holds comparative advantage, Hussain Sayed said. The nation should continue to influence the world through soft power mechanisms, such as science, technology, ideas and even Hollywood productions, he said.
“The U.S. still has a lot to offer, but they have to get their act together,” Hussain Sayed said. “The America I knew when I was a student has changed. It’s so polarized and so divisive. But there’s still that mystique, that razzle and dazzle of American society that’s very alluring.”
Carly Fiorina, 2016 presidential candidate and former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, said the U.S. relies on talents from civil society and the private sector, which allows cutting-edge solutions and innovation to flourish. Embracing this strength can help the U.S. maintain a realistic view of China’s global positioning, she said.
“I think the U.S. innovative capacity will surprise China,” Fiorina said. “It is foolish to cast China either as our 100% enemy or as 100% villain, but it is equally foolish to cast them as weaker than they are or stronger than they are.”
To effectively account for these strengths and vulnerabilities, U.S. government agencies should collaborate to develop more consistent and coherent strategies for engaging with China, Fiorina said.
“I would hope that our institutions of government — the Department of Defense, State Department, USAID — will become less prone to the political rhetoric that rages all around them,” she said. “If there were ever a time for the bureaucracy to churn along, irrespective of who’s in the White House, I think it’s with regard to the relationship with China.”
Past influences and future considerations
If the U.S. wants its democratic ideals to survive amid shifting power dynamics, it must take a definitive stance against autocracies as it once did, Lithuanian Representative Žygimantas Pavilionis said during the day two keynote session.
“Thirty-two years ago, we voted against the Soviet Union and for our independence, and we started the rebuilding of our nation,” Pavilionis said. “That wouldn’t be happening without American support. … When America is standing for democracy, everything goes right.”
But inconsistent U.S. action followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Pavilionis said.
“If you start appeasing autocracies, like Russia and China, they grow big,” he said.
The U.S. exhibited complacency and self-satisfaction after the Cold War, Ambassador Derek Mitchell, president of the National Democratic Institute, agreed.
“As Americans, generally we believe that wars end, but adversaries don’t,” Mitchell said. “The Russians didn’t think the Cold War ended, and Putin … thinks it’s still continuing. China looks at the Cold War and learns lessons and decides ‘We have to avoid what America did to the Soviet Union.’ [The U.S.] tends to have this sort of complacency that wars end, and we have a dividend from them ending instead of continuing to fight and to think about what’s over the horizon and what we face.”
As the U.S. government copes with this so-called lack of foresight, Pavilionis said it should conduct business in the Indo-Pacific region, advocate for Ukraine and Georgia’s NATO membership and arm Baltic states.
In protecting democracy, the U.S. sustains ideals of dignity and freedom, said Johnny Walsh, deputy assistant administrator at the USAID Center for Democracy, Human Rights and Governance.
“I feel very strongly that the perception of authoritarian encroachment has rallied democratic allies profoundly,” Walsh said. “It was a reality before [the invasion of] Ukraine, but it’s really … a daily lived reality now. There’s a sense that defending democracy around the world is not a luxury, but a core strategic interest and a moral good.”
U.S. inconsistency gives competitors a chance to exert influence, Mitchell said.
“If you aren’t out there shaping a world or environment that works for our values and interests and norms, others will come in and see that opportunity and take advantage of it,” Mitchell said.
Pavilionis said the U.S. cannot keep “waking up so late” to this reality.