There is an all-too-common practice in Washington punditry of attributing strategic intentions to other countries without any apparent evidence.  A recent example is the column by Dan Blumenthal and Robert Kagan in the Washington Post, “What to Do About North Korea.”  

The authors, writing about the North Korean nuclear test and Taepodong 2 missile launches, assert that,

[I]n theory China could pressure Kim to give up his weapons — it has the power and influence. But the fact is, China doesn’t want to. Beijing is content to live with a nuclear and anti-Western North Korea. While China fears a collapsed North that would flood its struggling Northeast with refugees, it also fears a unified, democratic, prosperous Korea allied with the United States. China wants a puppet state in North Korea, which is why, far from joining in sanctions, it steadily increases its economic investment there.

The authors could have prefaced their statement by asserting that it was their assessment of Beijing’s intentions based on China’s actions or other indicators.  Instead, they assert what China “wants” as if it is fact – that they know what China’s intentions are.  This could be an accurate presentation of China’s strategic intentions but the authors do not present any evidence on this crucial point. 

This is not just an epistemological question; there are real consequences to their assertion.  These consequences are indicated by their statement that the nuclear test and missile launch “exposed the futility of the six-party talks and, in particular, the much-hyped myth of China’s value as a partner on strategic matters.”  The authors have used their attribution of strategic intentions to China to establish their case for scuttling the Six-Party Talks and the notion that China can be a strategic partner of the United States.  

This phenomena of attributing strategic intentions to other countries — especially hostile or at least incompatible strategic intentions — works both ways.  There is a vocal element in the Chinese foreign policy elite that maintains that the strategic intention of the United States in pressing China on climate change is to retard China’s growth and slow China’s emergence as a great power.  I think that most people familiar with the position of the U.S. government would find that assertion to be inaccurate if not ludicrous.  Fortunately, the Chinese government apparently has rejected this analysis. 

Assessments of strategic intentions are critically important in inter-state relations and should be made carefully and with considerable evidence.  The stakes in getting it right or wrong can be very high.  Granted, it is not always easy to determine other powers’ motivations and in any given country there are undoubtedly different intentions, even within a given government (like the deep Kissinger/Schlesinger and Vance/Brzezinski differences in strategy toward the Soviet Union in the 1970s).  In the case of China and most other countries, however, you can engage in long-term, serious dialogue with government officials, think tank experts, scholars, and others from civil society to gain a substantial understanding of dominant thinking in a country about strategic intentions on core isues.  At the very least, you can probably get a pretty good idea of what are not the intentions of the country. 

In the case of Chinese intentions toward North Korea, based on my three decades of strategic dialogue with Chinese officials and analysts, I strongly doubt that the intentions attributed to China by Blumenthal and Kagan accurately reflect Chinese thinking, strategic intentions, or policies.   But that is another story…

Banning Garrett is director of the Asia Program at the Atlantic Council.