Membership Book Review: "Overreach" by Susan Shirk


for the best English-language book on international affairs

“Overreach is a masterful analysis of the leading contemporary challenge in geopolitics by a long-time close observer of China.” – Lionel Gelber Prize jury

“Shirk draws on her rare combination of scholarly expertise and deep experience in U.S. foreign policy to offer a magisterial account of the excess of ambition in Beijing.” – Yuen Yuen Ang, Foreign Affairs

“An authoritative account of how China is seeking to become the world’s dominant power.” – Kirkus Reviews

From one of the world’s most respected experts on Chinese politics, OVERREACH is a devastatingly lucid portrait of how China went from fragile superpower to global heavyweight.

For three decades after Mao's death in 1976, China's leaders adopted a restrained approach to foreign policy. To facilitate the country's inexorable economic ascendance, and to prevent a backlash, they reassured the outside world of China's peaceful intentions.

Then, as Susan Shirk shows in this illuminating, sobering, and utterly persuasive new book, something changed. China went from fragile superpower to global heavyweight, muscling its way around the South China Sea, punishing countries that disagree with China, intimidating Taiwan, tightening its grip on Hong Kong, and openly challenging the United States for preeminence not just economically and technologically but militarily. China began to overreach. 

Combining her decades of research and experience, Shirk, author of the hugely influential China: Fragile Superpower, argues that we are now fully embroiled in a new cold war. Prying open the "black box" of China's political system, Shirk shows the shift toward confrontation began in the mid-2000s under the mild-mannered Hu Jintao. As China's economy boomed, especially after the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, Hu and the other leaders lost restraint, abetting aggression toward the outside world and unchecked domestic social control. When Xi Jinping took power in 2012, he capitalized on widespread official corruption and open splits in the leadership to make the case for more concentrated power at the top.

In the decade following, and to the present day, Xi has accumulated greater power than any leader since Mao. Those who implement Xi's directives compete to outdo one another in fervor, provoking an even greater global backlash and stoking jingoism within China on a scale not seen since the Cultural Revolution. Shirk's extensive interviews and meticulous analysis reveal the dynamics driving overreach. To counter it, she argues, the worst mistake the rest of the world, and the United States in particular, can make is to overreact. Understanding the domestic roots of China's actions will enable us to avoid the mistakes that could lead to war. 

About the Author

Susan Shirk is research professor and the founding chair of the 21st Century China Center, a unique academic research center and university-based policy think tank at the School of Global Policy and Strategy, UC San Diego. She is one of the most influential experts working on U.S.-China relations and Chinese politics in the U.S. She first visited China in 1971 and has been researching and engaging with China ever since. She is the author of many books, including most notably The Political Logic of Economic Reform in ChinaChina: Fragile Superpower, and Overreach: How China Derailed its Peaceful Rise published by Oxford University Press in October 2022. Overreach won the Lionel Gelber Prize for the best book in English on international affairs from the Munk School, University of Toronto, in 2023, and is shortlisted for the 2023 Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award for books making an outstanding contribution to the understanding of foreign policy or international relations.

From 1997-2000, Dr. Shirk served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs, with responsibility for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mongolia. She is the founder of the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD), a Track 1.5 forum for discussions of security issues among defense and foreign ministry officials and academics from the United States, Japan, China, Russia, and North and South Korea. She was a member of the Defense Policy Board.

Shirk co-chairs a task force of China experts whose most recent report is “Avoiding War Over Taiwan.” She is also co-chair of the UC San Diego Forum on U.S.-China Relations, an ongoing high-level forum focused entirely on the U.S.-China relationship. She received the 2021 Joseph J. Kruzel Memorial Award of the American Political Science Association for her distinguished career in national security affairs as an academic and public servant.

Shirk is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College, received her M.A. in Asian Studies from UC Berkeley, and received her Ph.D in Political Science from M.I.T.