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Published in: Journal of Chinese Political Science 3/2022

13-06-2022 | Review Essay

Understanding the Challenge of China’s Rise: Fixing Conceptual Confusion about Intentions

Author: Oriana Skylar Mastro

Published in: Journal of Chinese Political Science | Issue 3/2022

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Abstract

What are intentions and how should states decipher them? For scholars, the debate about uncertainty and intentions lies at the heart of international relations. And yet there are theoretical and empirical issues with how scholars have defined, measured, and operationalized intentions to date in the context of understanding China’s rise. This article reviews the English and Chinese language literature on intentions and revisionism and presents five propositions that should drive research moving forward. First, a theory of intentions requires a definition distinct from aspirations, motives, preferences, objectives, goals, and grand strategy. Second, states’ intentions about ends should be analyzed independently from those about means. Third, assessments of whether a country’s intentions are good or bad are subjective and vary based on from which country’s perspective the analysis is undertaken. Fourth, states’ intentions vary not only by issue area, but also within a particular issue area, just as international institutions, or territorial disputes. And lastly, while there may be uncertainty about intentions, that does not make them unknowable. Embracing these five propositions allow for a more productive research agenda and policy recommendations based on data-driven research instead of wishful thinking.
Footnotes
1
I have come to this conclusion based on my own training and work experience in the intelligence community as well as from interviewing senior intelligence officers.
 
2
The paper reasonably focuses on all the challenges of evaluating intentions of a rising power. However, it is important to note that there is the additional challenge of signaling intentions For instance, Chinese leaders and top diplomats often complain that US counterparts have “misjudged” China’s intentions. “The US has misperceived and miscalculated China’s strategic intention.” President Xi Jinping Has a Video Call with US President Joe Biden. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. March 19, 2022. https://​www.​fmprc.​gov.​cn/​mfa_​eng/​zxxx_​662805/​202203/​t20220319_​10653207.​html. While there are incentives for Chinese leaders to create this narrative to counteract negative US assessments, there is an extensive literature on the difficulties of signaling, for instance Fearon, James. 1997. Signaling Foreign Policy Interests: Tying Hands versus Sinking Costs. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 41, No. 1: 68–90; Jervis, Robert. 1978. Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma. World Politics, Vol. 30, No. 2: 167–214.
 
3
See Blackwill, Robert D., and Ashley J. Tellis. 2015. Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China. Council on Foreign Relations, Council Special Report, No. 72, March 2015. https://​carnegieendowmen​t.​org/​files/​Tellis_​Blackwill.​pdf.
 
4
See Shirk, Susan L. 2007. China: Fragile Superpower: How China’s Internal Politics Could Derail Its Peaceful Rise. New York City: Oxford University Press; and Fingar, Thomas, and Oi, Jean 2020. Fateful Decisions: Choices That Will Shape China’s Future. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
 
5
The http://​merriam-webster.​comDictionary, s.v. “objective (adj.),” accessed January 10, 2020, https://​www.​merriam-webster.​com/​dictionary/​objective.
 
6
The http://​merriam-webster.​comDictionary, s.v. “objective (adj.),” accessed January 10, 2020, https://​www.​merriam-webster.​com/​dictionary/​objective.
 
7
The http://​merriam-webster.​comDictionary, s.v. “goal (n.),” accessed January 10, 2020, https://​www.​merriam-webster.​com/​dictionary/​goal.
 
8
For example, Goddard’s work assumes revisionist then defines revisionist intentions based on the process through which a country tries to achieve its revisionist goals. Some measurement schemes include both, such as Yarhi-Milo’s concept. One exception is Robert Jervis, who defines intentions based solely on process, referring to them as preferred strategies, “about how states plan to realize their goals, whereas interest, motives, and preferences answer the question of what those goals are.”
 
9
David Edelstein measures this in terms of short- and long-term horizons. Leaders with short time horizons are focused on the immediate future in a general state of affairs that they do not expect to change dramatically. Leaders with long time horizons are more focused on a world that emerges after some predictable, but not necessarily certain, transformation of the underlying structure within which they operate. See Edelstein, David. 2017. Over the Horizon: Time, Uncertainty, and the Rise of Great Powers. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press: 5.
 
10
National ideas about best practices in achieving foreign-policy objectives do three things, according to Jeff Legro: “they empower certain domestic interests’ groups over others, they generate expectations against which performance is assessed, and they either facilitate or impede the possibility for a new strategy to emerge.” Legro, Jeffrey. 2007. What China Will Want: The Future Intentions of a Rising Power. Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 5, No. 3: 516.
 
11
States may avoid trying to alter others’ intentions through cooperation and inducement because it can create serious risks. See Edelstein, David. 2002. Managing uncertainty: Beliefs about intentions and the rise of great powers. Security Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1: 1–40.
 
12
The http://​merriam-webster.​comDictionary, s.v. “intention (n.),” accessed January 10, 2020, https://​www.​merriam-webster.​com/​dictionary/​intention.
 
13
Sebastian Rosato defines these as follows: current intentions about “a state’s present plan of action; future intentions are “the plans it will have after it rethinks its present plans.” Rosato, Sebastian. 2014. The Inscrutable Intentions of Great Powers. Quarterly Journal: International Security, Vol. 39, No. 3: 53.
 
14
This is in contrast to Sebastian Rosato’s view those observable indicators allow for marginal reductions in uncertainty about intentions at best. Rosato, Sebastian. 2014. The Inscrutable Intentions of Great Powers. Quarterly Journal: International Security, Vol. 39, No. 3: 51.
 
15
“A central continuity in history is the contest for power. The present is no different. Three main sets of challengers—the revisionist powers of China and Russia, the rogue states of Iran and North Korea, and transnational threat organizations, particularly jihadist terrorist groups—are actively competing against the United States and our allies and partners.” See Trump, Donald J. 2017. National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Washington, D.C.: The White House. https://​trumpwhitehouse.​archives.​gov/​wp-content/​uploads/​2017/​12/​NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.​pdf. The Biden administration never uses the word “revisionist”; instead, it calls China “more assertive” or “increasingly assertive” (three times). See Biden, Joseph R. 2021. Interim National Security Strategy Guidance. Washington, D.C.: The White House. https://​www.​whitehouse.​gov/​wp-content/​uploads/​2021/​03/​NSC-1v2.​pdf.
 
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Metadata
Title
Understanding the Challenge of China’s Rise: Fixing Conceptual Confusion about Intentions
Author
Oriana Skylar Mastro
Publication date
13-06-2022
Publisher
Springer Netherlands
Published in
Journal of Chinese Political Science / Issue 3/2022
Print ISSN: 1080-6954
Electronic ISSN: 1874-6357
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1007/s11366-022-09805-3

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