State Preferences and International Institutions: Boolean Analysis of China's Use of Force and South China Sea Territorial Disputes

By Huang, Teh-yi | Journal of East Asian Studies, May-August 2004 | Go to article overview

State Preferences and International Institutions: Boolean Analysis of China's Use of Force and South China Sea Territorial Disputes


Huang, Teh-yi, Journal of East Asian Studies


Thanks to supercharged economic growth, coupled with abundant physical and human capital, as well as political clout as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China is a rising great power, on the world stage. Whereas the former China under its closed, mysterious, and communist ideology was characterized as a threat to Asian and world peace during the Cold War years, today, ironically, a more open and internationally engaged China again triggers the "China threat" rhetoric. (1) Despite China's constant assurance of peaceable foreign policy intentions and claims that it will "never seek hegemony," (2) skeptics rebuke these as a mere smokescreen that covers an enormous forward thrust, (3) evidenced, for example, by the expansionist moves toward islets in the South China Sea. On the one hand, whether aggressive moves qualified China as a threat is still debated. (4) On the other hand, whether provocative actions would escalate into large-scale militarized conflicts that jeopardize regional stability constitutes the immediate concern.

The key reasons for the unsettled debates over China as a threat are disagreements and speculations about China's strategic goals, capabilities, and intentions. (5) Unless these controversies are further clarified, the analysis and predictions about China's strategic ambitions and behaviors in the South China Sea could be, at worst, hazardous conjectures. But to be fair, this problem is not unique to studying Chinese foreign behaviors. Rather, uncertainty about, and identification of, a state's preferences have been posing challenges to international relations (IR) inquiries, which have shaped the debate between rationalism and constructivism since the 1990s. (6) While constructivists argue that all social realities--state preferences included--are socially constructed, rationalists have a solid methodological reason to have preferences fixed: "preferences are impossible to observe directly whereas constraints are usually more observable. Under these conditions, fixed preferences allow for a tight analysis of many issues in an empirically falsifiable way." (7) Despite this concern, most rationalists do not deny the merits of endogenizing state preferences as a potentially promising way to understand international dynamics--provided methodological justifications.

Taking up this challenge, this article does not hold preferences as exogenously given and tries to enhance the methodological rigor of constructivism-oriented research programs. Preferences are not to be assumed by outside observers or researchers; rather, they need to be identified and explored, a critical insight that constructivism adds to the rationalist (both realist and institutionalist) formulations. To be brief, realists maintain that material calculation is the most fundamental drive of states' foreign behaviors. Sharing the importance of material cost-benefit computation in a state's strategic calculations, institutionalists hold that international institutions provide an additional layer of variables that might condition a state's naked wants. If realists were fight, then knowing what kind and the order of a state's specific preferences would be the key to explain behaviors. But if institutionalists are correct, then how institutions mold or condition a state's preferences is of central concern. In either case, identifying--rather than assuming--state preferences is the crucial first step, a contribution this study strives to make.

Nevertheless, identifying state preferences per se does not imply that preferences are fixed or can be changed. Here, two caveats regarding preferences are necessary. First, there is a distinction between preferences over outcomes/goals and preferences over strategies in the IR literature. (8) Conceptualizing state preferences in a means-end chain, some preferences over outcomes become preferences over strategies, depending on which stage one is examining. …

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