Misperception, issue identity and international conflict: a case study of China-US dispute over the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea

QI Shangcai1

(1.China Foreign Affairs University, Beijing 100037)

【Abstract】One of the core views of the cognitive theories of international relations is that the misperception of decision makers leads to inter-state conflict. However, there is no linear causal relationship between misperception and conflict. The traditional cognitive theories fail to clearly identify the specific conditions under which misperception leads to conflict. Another source of cognition, namely, identity, may shed new light. The concept of issue identity is conducive to understanding the relationship between misperception and conflict. Issue identity refers to actors’ identity activated in the interaction of specific issues, representing actors’ issue cognition and belief as compared with those of others. Actors interact with each other through issues, forming different identities in different issues. Issue identity affects the cognitive process in two aspects. For one thing, it sets actors’ cognitive preference and appropriate belief towards issues, influencing the formation of misperception. For another thing, it confirms actors’ interests in issues. The definition of interests determines the degree of sensitivity of the actors to the interactive issues, thus creating conditions for the generation of conflict. The more sensitive actors are towards issues, the more motivated they will be to act in line with their own misperceptions, and they will be more likely to resort to antagonistic means to defend their own interests. The above enlarges the likelihood of the outbreak of conflict. Recently, China-US misperception of the issue of the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea has been characterized by the clear transformation of misperception into conflict and the likelihood of regional conflict. It is the issue identity arising from the issue between the two sides that induces the hyper-sensitivity in their interaction.

【Keywords】 issue identity; misperception; issue sensitivity; international conflict; freedom of navigation in the South China Sea; China-US relations;

【DOI】

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(Translated by WEN Jianxin)

    Footnote

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This Article

ISSN:1003-3386

CN: 11-5370/D

Vol 34, No. 05, Pages 53-78

September 2017

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Abstract

  • 1 Introduction: will misperception necessarily lead to conflict?
  • 2 Traditional cognitive theories and their deficits
  • 3 Issue identity, misperception and international conflict
  • 4 Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea: geopolitical identity, misperception and China-US maritime conflict
  • 5 Conclusion: how to cope with misperception and avoid international conflict?
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