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

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.