All FSI News News June 15, 2022

Problems with Revisionism: A Conceptual Framework for Assessing Chinese Intentions

Deciphering China’s intentions is a pressing task for U.S. scholars and policymakers, yet there is a lack of consensus about what China plans to accomplish. In a new study that reviews the existing English and Chinese language literature on intentions and revisionism, Center Fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro offers five propositions to allow for a more productive and data-driven approach to understanding Beijing’s intentions.
Government building in China
Alexander Schimmeck/Unsplash

For as long as policymakers and scholars of international relations have sought to understand the actions of actors on the global stage, they have also debated the intentions of governments and the role those intentions play in statecraft. In a new article in the Journal of Chinese Political Science, Center Fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro proposes a new research agenda for deciphering Chinese intentions. She argues that the current treatment of intentions in international relations is not granular enough to allow for a nuanced understanding of what China wants, how it plans to achieve it, and what the implications will be for the United States and the U.S.-led world order.


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Mastro suggests that there are theoretical and empirical issues with how existing scholarly accounts have defined, measured, and operationalized intentions in the context of understanding China’s rise. She presents five propositions that should drive research moving forward. 

Her first point in advancing a theory of intentions requires a definition distinct from aspirations, motives, preferences, objectives, goals, and grand strategy. She argues that “intentions consist of purposefully designing or manipulating means to achieve some end,” implying “clear formulation and deliberateness.”

Second, a theory of intentions should analytically separate ends from means but include both process intentions and outcome intentions, says Mastro. Process intentions refer to “the preferred methods and the factors that influence how a country thinks it is best to achieve its goals,” outcome intentions to “what one wants to bring about, accomplish or attain.” Scholars thus need to differentiate between what China wants and how it plans to achieve those goals. For example, some argue that China is a “revisionist” power seeking to increase its influence by changing aspects of the international order to further its interests, not a “revolutionary” power intending to upend the system entirely. But more accurately, Mastro notes, “China has revisionist outcome intentions, not process intentions, with respect to international institutions; countries are revolutionary powers when they have both.”

Chinese intentions to control more of the South China Sea are detrimental to U.S. interests, even if China pursues those interests without using force
Oriana Skylar Mastro
Center Fellow

Another problem is that existing measurements of intentions tend to rely on values that are largely subjective and uninformative in explaining what a country is doing and how others should respond. For example, scholars often see revisionist intentions as bad and status quo intentions as good. But Mastro points out that the United States was revisionist after WWII: it set up the network of international institutions that make up the current international system. Why, then, should we ascribe a negative label to China’s revisionist efforts to leverage those institutions for its benefit? According to Mastro, it is more accurate to assess whether intentions are detrimental or beneficial for specific actors. For example, “Chinese intentions to control more of the South China Sea are detrimental to U.S. interests, even if China pursues those interests without using force." 

Fourth, Mastro contends that states’ intentions vary not only by issue area but also within a particular issue area, and therefore it is empirically problematic to analyze one variable describing everything a state wants. She argues that a state’s intentions can vary even within specific spheres of activity, such as security, and in many cases, a particular issue cannot be dissected cleanly into economic or security tropes like China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.

Her fifth proposition addresses a debate in the literature about uncertainty and intentions: while there may be uncertainty about intentions, that does not make them unknowable. Mastro suggests that, in practice, “current intentions are knowable to a great degree... future intentions are less knowable, as states have yet to formulate them — but how the pursuit of current intentions unfolds largely shapes future intentions.”

The study of China and its intentions must be more granular and deeply data-driven, Mastro concludes. The view that “China is revisionist/bad and the United States is status quo/good” risks creating a series of assumptions that hamper good policy, she warns. Embracing the five propositions she lists will allow for a more productive research agenda and policy recommendations based on data instead of “wishful thinking.” For Mastro, this new framework is an important launching pad from which U.S. policymakers not only can better consider China’s intentions but also think innovatively about how to win over partners and build new types of power.

Read the article by Mastro

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