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Foreign Relations

Victor Shih takes the helm at UC San Diego's World-Renowned China Center.

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Strong relationships between U.S. and Chinese scholars and academics remain as important as ever at the 21st Century China Center. Learn more at

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This story was published in the Fall 2023 issue of UC San Diego Magazine.

Is the U.S. at risk of slipping into a cold war with China? In recent years, as tensions escalate, under­standing the dynamics between the world’s two most powerful countries and the two largest economies has never been more important.  

This is why the work of the 21st Century China Center, established in 2011 at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy (GPS), has gained the attention of top policymakers and scholars on both sides of the Pacific. It is a leading university-based think tank that produces data-driven scholarly research and informs policy discussions on China and U.S.-China relations. 

Victor C. Shih, the newly appointed director of the 21st Century China Center, is replacing Founding Chair Susan Shirk, who will continue to play an active role in the center. Shih, a GPS professor and highly regarded scholar, is also author of Coalitions of the Weak: Elite Politics in China from Mao’s Stratagem to the Rise of Xi. We sat down with Shih to discuss what is at stake for the U.S.-China relationship as well as his plans as director of the 21st Century China Center.

Victor Shih
Victor Shih, director of the 21st Century China Center

How would you describe the current relationship between the U.S. and China? 

It is a competitive relationship; leaders of both countries have been very clear about that. 

The big question is whether this competition is heating up or waning. At the end of the Trump administration, it was very tense between the two countries with a whole range of combative economic policies. And geopolitically speaking, the relationship was fraught during COVID-19 with the Trump administration falsely accusing China of spreading of the virus. At the same time, China had, and has been, very aggressive with military activities in the South China Sea and across the Taiwan Strait. 

I think in the past year there has been a very slight degree of moderation. At least for now, the two sides have shown a greater willingness to talk, unlike during the Trump administration when they basically didn’t talk to each other directly.

It is excellent that there’s more dialogue in this competitive environment because it’s very important for each side to really understand the intention of the other and not let silly things, like a balloon, completely derail the bilateral relationship. 

What are the main issues that may impact the U.S.-China relationship? 

Beginning in 2020, the U.S. imposed sanctions and visa restrictions against several Chinese government officials and companies citing a range of reasons, including the Uyghur genocide, as well as human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Tibet. We are watching whether the U.S. and the Biden administration will impose additional sanctions.

There is also speculation that China is now providing military or dual-use equipment to the Russian military. Yet, the U.S. recognizes that there’s a global market for this kind of stuff and that China can sell equipment to some third-party country and that country will sell it to Russia. 

The technological race between the U.S. and China is another issue to watch. Will each country roll out additional measures to safeguard its own technology and its own IT infrastructure, thereby further impeding trade and investment? I think it’s likely, but I hope these measures can be limited within a clearly well-defined parameter.  

And beyond technology, overall trade is also important. Hopefully, there will be some discussion on lowering some of the tariffs that the U.S. had imposed on China during the Trump administration because a lot of it is completely unnecessary. 

Finally, there is the major issue of China’s own economy, which is not doing very well. If China were to be much more open to foreign investors and foreign businesses investing in the country, I think it would help improve its economy. Their leadership has not been willing to do that so far, but hopefully, that will change in the near future. 

Why is the work of 21st Century China Center at GPS important in this political environment?

Politicians and pundits have an incentive to sensationalize various aspects of the relationship — from China’s intellectual property theft (which is a real issue) to accusations of spying. A key objective of the center is to facilitate a dialogue between policymakers but also serve academics in both the U.S. and China. The center brings facts and empirically rigorous research to policy discussions, helping policymakers talk about these issues in an unexaggerated manner.

What is your vision for the center?

It’s important to me that we remain a platform that seeks to help China specialists in our community so they can do their best work. We’ll continue to facilitate academic exchange in the social sciences, especially between Chinese institutions and the scholars at UC San Diego, and provide research funding to scholars and students who study China. We place no restrictions on what they research or what issues are addressed. We’ll help them translate their work to broader audiences and continue to facilitate the best academic research on China and U.S.-China relations. 

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