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A Conversation with Susan L. Shirk

October 26, 2022

For decades, as China’s economic clout and international influence increased quickly and significantly, the Chinese government seemed eager to reassure the rest of the world that its intentions were benign—that no country had reason to fear Beijing’s rising power. Not anymore, said Susan L. Shirk, an author and China expert who leads the 21st century China Center at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, University of California San Diego.

During a Dean’s Speaker Series discussion at Johns Hopkins SAIS on October 26, 2022, Shirk noted that China shifted toward a more aggressive stance in the mid-2000s, as clearly demonstrated just before the country hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008, which happens to be the same year of the outbreak of the global financial crisis now widely known as the Great Recession. As China’s domestic politics continues to drive its foreign policy, this more assertive approach is not just being applied toward Japan and Taiwan (the usual targets of nationalist sentiment in China) but also in the relationship with the United States and other nations as well.

Although the pivot to a more aggressive posture did not begin under China’s current leader Xi Jinping, it has hardened even further under his watch. This was the argument Shirk laid out in her recently published book, Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise—an authoritative account of how China is seeking to become the world’s dominant power.

“What we hear today is a very pessimistic view,” Shirk said. “[Xi Jinping] has concluded that the United States is implacably hostile to China. And it doesn’t matter what China does, that United States is just trying to trip it up, slow it down, contain it. And so, China has to struggle with the United States and build up its own self-reliance. In effect, he’s preparing for a cold war with the United States, if not worse.”

Shirk argues that the United States should not give up on sustained diplomatic engagement with China, but she worries about whether China’s overreach is already hard-baked into the mind-set and highly centralized style of its current leadership. A few days before this SAIS event, President Xi further consolidated his power and maneuvered himself into a third term during the 20th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party. With the power structure so centralized, she noted, underlings in Beijing and in the provinces understand that, to advance their careers, they must be seen to be zealously carrying out Xi’s policies and dictums. “I do think the system is prone to overreaching," said Shirk.

Susan Shirk first visited China in 1971 and has been researching and following the country’s trajectory since. From 1997 to 2000, Shirk served as deputy assistant secretary of state in the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, with responsibility for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mongolia. Her first book China: Fragile Superpower helped frame the policy debate on China in the U.S. and other countries. She is also co-chair of the UC San Diego Forum on U.S.-China Relations, the first ongoing high-level forum focused entirely on the U.S.-China relationship.

In co-sponsorship with the SAIS China Global Research Center, SAIS Dean James Steinberg talked with Dr. Susan L. Shirk, Research Professor and Chair, 21st Century China Center at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy. The conversation focuses on her new book Overreach: How China Derailed its Peaceful Rise-- an authoritative account of how China is seeking to become the world’s dominant power.