Social structures as incentives for a foreign environmental policy?

A foreign policy analysis of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from a constructivist point of view

Master's Thesis, 2012

103 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents _

Table of Figures

List of Abbreviations

Note on Chinese Terms

China’s Geography

1. China’s “environmental crisis”: An introduction

2. Theoretical framework: Constructivism
2.1 Deep Roots - A Brief Introduction to the Historical Background of Constructivism
2.2 Key assumptions of constructivism
2.2.1 The three “I”s: Identities, Interests and Ideas
2.2.2 What is good, what is bad: Norms and Rules
2.2.3 Shaping states’ interests: International institutions
2.3 Critical evaluation of the theoretical background
2.4 Development of hypothesis

3. After the “miracle” - An introduction to China’s politics

4. From refusal to “hard tasks”: China’s foreign environmental policy since
4.1 The 1970s: “We must not refrain from building our economy”
4.2 The 1980s: “If you want us to play, you have to pay”
4.3 The 1990s - A double-edged sword
4.4 Facing environmental issues “with hard tasks”: Promises of the new millennium
4.5 China’s development towards a ‘green’ power (1972-2012): A summary

5.Soft forces as driver for foreign environmental policy? - The case of China
5.1 Green China as leader for the Third World: The country’s new identity
5.2 Environmental protection as ‘urgent task’: The norm behind the policy
5.3 Where states are taught: International Institutions
5.4 Findings: Constructivist categories as a drive for foreign environmental policy

6. Social structuresdomatter: A conclusion

7. Appendices

App. 1 China’s “insatiable thirst for energy”: Increase of Electricity Use

App. 2: Production of CFCs in selected countries 1986-1966

App. 3: Multilateral Agreements to which China is a Party (OECD 2007: 326)

App. 4: International Environmental Conventions to which China is a Party

App. 5: The scientific consensus about the human influence on climate change

App. 5.1 CO2-levels over the last 60.000 years

App. 5.2 Variations of the Earth’s Surface Temperature


Abstract _

Following years of incredible economic development in China, the country today is facing severe, environmental problems. This has been widely acknowledged by Chinese leaders as well as by international scholars.

This work presents a detailed analysis of the foreign environmental policy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for the period from 1972 to the present day. In recent decades, the country’s behaviour changed from having an initial policy of refusal to having a more cooperative position within international negotiations, combined with voluntary agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While the central government undertook its first steps towards a green, foreign environmental policy, scholars mainly analysed this changing behaviour from a political or economic standpoint. This work, however, no longer uses ‘traditional’ viewpoints to explain the changing behaviour, but focuses on social structures that act as drivers for China’s cooperative behaviour within global environmental governance structures. Therefore, three hypotheses are developed from a constructivist framework. According to these hypotheses, China’s foreign environmental policy is driven by three incentives: its new identity as a ‘green’ developing country; the emergence and cascade of the norm that environmental protection is a severe and urgent task; and China’s increasing engagement in international institutions which act as a forum for social learning. Finally, the dissertation delivers a completely new approach to the environmental policy of the PRC. It contributes to the academic field as it shows that China’s environmental diplomacy - beside rational incentives that were explored by other scholars - is particularly driven by incentives such as identity, norms and institutions. Social structures therefore do matter in a nation’s foreign environmental policy.

Acknowledgements _

First and foremost, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to my supervisor, Dr. Hui-Chi Yeh, for her excellent guidance, care, patience, and support throughout my work on this dissertation.

I would also like to thank Prof. Dr. Tanja Brühl for the solid knowledge that she provided me with during my undergraduate studies at the Goethe University Frankfurt and for the interest in IR that she awoke in me.

Furthermore, I would like to thank my parents for their unlimited support during both my undergraduate and postgraduate studies, no matter how many miles there were between us.

I would like to convey special thanks to Steve for his personal support and great patience. He was always there cheering me up and stood by me through the ups and downs in the process of writing this dissertation.

Last but not least, I would like to thank everybody who shared the past year with me at the University of Southampton, both here and from a distance.

Thank You.

Table of Figures _

Fig. i: China’s Cities, Rivers and Provinces

Fig. 1: Number of major flood events by continent and decade

Fig. 2: Norm life cycle

Fig. 3: Lines of Argument

Fig. 4: China’s GDP from 1978 to

Fig. 5: The UN environmental action plan for international co-operation

Fig. 6: China’s progress in CFC reduction

Fig. 7: The Development of Environmental Consciousness in China

Fig. 8: Social learning cycle framework

App. 1 China’s“insatiable thirst for energy”: Increase of Electricity Use

App. 2: Production of CFCs in selected countries 1986-1996

App. 5: The scientific consensus about the human influence on climate change

App. 5.1 CO2-levels over the last 60.000 years

App. 5.2 Variations of the Earth’s Surface Temperature

List of Abbreviations _

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Note on Chinese Terms _

In the following dissertation, Chinese words are transcribed in the pinyin system, which is nowadays the common system used in foreign languages, and which is officially approved.

The currency is referred to as the yuan which actually is its principal unit. The currency itself is named renminbi („people's money“). According to the exchange rate of September 18, 2012, 1 yuan is $0,16 or £0,10.

China’s Geography _

Fig. i: China’s Cities, Rivers and Provinces (Cannon 2000)

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

1. China’s “environmental crisis”: An introduction

"The world cannot achieve sustainable development without China, and China cannot achieve its future without the world."

Maurice Strong, former head of the UN Environment Program (UNEP), quoted by Wang, 2012

In November 2005, an explosion at a chemical plant in Jilin Province contaminated the Songhua River with over one hundred tons of toxic benzene. Flowing downstream to Heilongjiang Province, the pollution curtailed important tap water for many days in Harbin, before it then moved into the Heilong River on its way across the Chinese-Russian border (Economy, 2004; Lampton, 2008: 235).

With regard to the environmental situation in China, this dramatic case is not outstanding: cadmium in the Bei River in Guangdong Province in 2005, and just one year later severe pollution of the Yellow and Xiang Rivers. 20 of the world's 30 most polluted cities are in China (Economy, 2008b); coal dust emissions in northern China are five times the WHO standard (Kornberg and Faust, 2005: 236). 42 per cent of all water in China’s seven principal river systems has a quality index of 3 or lower (“unfit for human consumption”) (Lampton, 2008: 236). - The list of environmental catastrophes in the country of 1.3 billion people is long.

An especially severe part of China's “environmental crisis” (Kassiola and Guo, 2010) thereby refers to the pollution of air, caused by the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Here, as well as in the case of the Songhua River, one problem becomes particularly clear: environmental destruction has no respect for national borders. While problems such as the destruction of agricultural land can be solved or at least dealt with on a national level, many of today's severe problems, such as air pollution or global warming, cannot. The urge for a global solution is therefore important.

Regarding the problem of environmental destruction and climate change, the People’s Republic of China (PRC)1 has to be considered as “quite” or even “highly” vulnerable to such impacts (Boer et al., 1998:151; Harris, 2003:3). For instance, China’s National Assessment Report on Climate Change predicts that the average temperature will rise by 2-3°C over the next 50-80 years if no action is taken (Xu, 2010). Temperature rises could lead to acute water shortage, as well as an exacerbation of the summer monsoon leading to an increase in flood events. This could have already been observed over recent years, as Figure 1 shows.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1: Number of major flood events by continent and decade (Gore, 2006: 106)

In 2005, for example, there were severe floods in the provinces of Sichuan and Shandong while nearby Anhui Province was continuing to suffer extreme drought at the same time (Gore, 2006: 112). Thomas Schelling argues that China will suffer more than developed states due to its high dependence on agricultural activity (Schelling, 2002: 3)2. According to China's climate change country study,

“ (…) if recent climate change trends continue, much of Chinese agriculture is likely to face shorter growing periods and increased water deficits, requiring more irrigation.” (China Climate Change Country Study, 1999: 109).

However, China seems to be both culprit and victim at the same time. It is not only a country which will have to face the severe consequences of environmental destruction, but it is also the world’s top polluter.

The prediction made in 1998 that China would overtake the US as the world’s leading carbon dioxide emitter by 2030, was already fulfilled by 2006 (PBL, 2007). Currently, the “dragon” emits about 19 per cent of global CO2 emissions (Qian, 2008). The enormous population of 1.3 billion people, longing for individual development and therefore energy consumption, mobility etc., has to be seen as a serious threat to the future. Even in 2005, the proportion of China’s energy consumption compared to global levels was much higher than that of GDP (Wenquan, 2007: 63). If the current trends of economic growth continue, China's per capita energy consumption will reach the global average. That said, China alone will account for nearly one-third of the world's total GHG emissions between 1990 and 2020 (Harris and Yu, 2005: 49).

It can be estimated that, assuming the ratio of carbon dioxide emissions to GDP remains at the 2001 level, total global emissions will reach as high as 25 billion metric tonnes by 2018, which represents an increase of 69 per cent. Emissions in China will increase to 9 billion tonnes in this time - a growth of 218 per cent (Fang and Yang, 2008: 226).

However, there is a general impression that over the last couple of years, China has become more active in global environmental negotiations. Recently, the “superpower in-the-making” (Carter and Mol, 2006: 339) has signed up to more than 50 multilateral environmental agreements. Latest in 2005, at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference in Montreal, it became clear that China has become one of the “key players” in the new round of negotiations (Ibid.).

Being this key player, China often presents itself “with a quite bewildering complexity” (Cannon, 2000: 1). This dissertation aims to enlighten this “complexity”; to show and to explain the development in China’s behaviour regarding international environmental policy. The main assumption behind this work is that today, the country behaves differently to how it did during past decades. This will be shown in Chapter 4 which deals with the empirical data. The dissertation then aims to analyse China’s 'greening' foreign policy and find reasons behind this changing behaviour.

The main objective is to show that social structures, opposed to economic or political incentives, can act as drivers for a foreign environmental policy as well as rational approaches.

The research question that will be analysed in the following work is therefore formulated as: “Why does China increasingly participate in international environmental agreements?” To answer this question, the dissertation presents a One-Case-Study of the foreign environmental policy of the PRC. Therefore, three hypotheses are developed within a constructivist framework.

They will be tested through a qualitative analysis of both primary and secondary literature, especially focusing on the official documents of the negotiations and the international discourse around them. UN global conferences “seek to raise global consciousness (…) hoping to change the dominant attitudes” (Schechter, 2005: 9). They have to be considered as an important policy forum for international environmental policy.

The Bibliographic System of the United Nations (UNBISNET) was the key instrument during the research phase of this dissertation. Here, protocols of major UN conferences are provided online and can be searched via key words, dates or official UN document symbols.

The analysis includes the last four decades, focusing on one international conference or agreement for each decade:

- 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment;
- 1987 The Montreal Protocol;
- 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development;
- 2002 UN World Summit on Sustainable Development.

The environmental crisis in China and the national leaders' response to it increasingly attracts the attention of both sinologists and environmental or political scholars. China's environmental policy has therefore been explored in other recent works. Most of the literature, however, focuses on China's environmental situation and the severe destruction which has occurred rather than on the government's solutions. Detailed analyses of China's environmental problems can be found in various authors’ work, for example Liu and Diamond 2005, Gang and Chen 2009 (esp. Ch.1) and Kassiola and Guo 2010.

Special mention must be given to the work of Elizabeth C. Economy (2004, 2007a, 2007b, 2010). The Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies in the Council on Foreign Relations specialised in Chinese domestic and foreign policy as well as global environmental issues (CFR, 2012). Her publications are an important part of the research that has been carried out in the field during past decades, and not many scholars have published in such quantity and detail as she has.

While research on Chinese politics in general and the country’s reaction to environmental issues has become popular recently, the concentration on norms and the importance of culture in this particular context has not yet been analysed in depth. The connection between the emergence of norms and environmental protection in a more theoretical way, however, has been researched by John Hannigan.

In his book “Environmental Sociology” (2006), Hannigan draws a framework for the socially constructed part in the contemporary environmental debate. When the work was published for the first time in 1995, it offered a completely new approach to the environmental academic discussion - back then, most scholars approached the issue from a realist position (Hannigan, 2006: ix). Hannigan shows how environmental problems, just as with any other kind of social problem, are constructed within a complex network of policymakers, media and citizens through transported norms and values.

In other fields of study, the connection between politics and sociological categories is not a new idea. The emergence of norms has been the research object of many studies. For example, Finnemore conducted an analysis on how norms can shape states' interests with regard to three examples of international organisations: the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Geneva Conventions and the World Bank (Finnemore, 1996a) or in another research project, the evolution of humanitarian intervention (Finnemore, 1996b).

Other examples can be found in the context of normative taboos on chemical weapons (Price, 1995) and nuclear weapons (Price and Tannenwald, 1996).

Articles on China’s environmental politics, however, mainly focus on traditional categories. They try to explain the willingness of Chinese leaders to participate in international environmental agreements with just economic (see for example Blackman 2000, Buchner and Carraro 2006, Carraro and Massetti 2012) or political (Hatch 2003, Zhang 2003) motives. These approaches brought significant insight into China’s foreign policy and therefore are deeply acknowledged. However, the cultural and social dimension of environmental negotiations is a very important one, and, especially in the Chinese context, it has to be considered as remarkably important3.

Here, this dissertation contributes to the academic field of Chinese environmental policies. It will focus on social structures introduced through constructivist ideas that drive Chinese leaders. This way, the following work aims to fill the gap in recent academic research projects that could be identified; a gap that exists between empiric descriptions of China’s environmental problems and the government’s responses, and the theoretical approach to explain environmental policies based on constructivist ideas about the transportation of values and norms.

At the same time, this work aims not only to cover the simple alarmism that, as mentioned above, has been driven by many scholars to the present day, but also a more balanced perspective as expressed by Liu and Diamond who state: “China is lurching between accelerating environmental damage and accelerating environmental protection” (Liu and Diamond, 2005: 1186). Efforts and first successes will be acknowledged, even though the country has not yet reached its goal on its way towards an environmentally friendly, sustainable development.

To answer the above stated research questions, this dissertation will first introduce the theoretical framework of constructivism (Chapter 2) following this introductory chapter. The aim of this theoretical element is the development of the core hypotheses which will be tested. To do so, Chapter 3 gives a brief overview about China’s role in the international system, particularly international environmental policy, before the key part of this dissertation will provide an analysis of Chinese foreign environmental policy over the last four decades (Chapter 4) with the aim of verifying or disproving the formulated hypotheses (Chapter 5). An answer on the research question in the form of an evaluation of the conducted analysis will be given, before the last part of this dissertation summarises the findings and provides an outlook for the future.

2. Theoretical Framework: Constructivism

"We are cultural beings, endowed with the capacity and the will to take a deliberate attitude towards the world and to lend it significance. ”

Max Weber 1949: 81

This dissertation uses the constructivist approach to analyse China’s foreign environmental policy. As already pointed out by Max Weber, human beings are deeply influenced by their culture, norms, beliefs and values. So, a country’s policy is never simply functionally determined by external or internal factors, but it reflects broader cultural forces. This has to be considered carefully especially for nations like China (Ruggie, 1998: 864). As Carter and Mol argue, “(China's) environmental governance system carries the consequences of the national particularities of a transitional state with a different cultural background” (Carter and Mol, 2006: 333).

Having the same approach in mind, even though he is considering another policy field, Alistair Johnston states that 'traditional' accounts of Chinese behaviour are incomplete because they fail to include the notion of an idea-based culture (Johnston, 1995, 1996). In the Chinese context, traditional approaches such as realism and its explanation of ‘anarchy’ are not sufficient to explain China’s behaviour within the international system.

The same idea is formulated by Leszek Buszynski in his book “Asia-Pacific Identity - Value and Identity”, where he argues that “(i)dentity matters in international relations - no more so than in the Asia Pacific region, which is home to deeply distinctive and proud cultures” (Buszynski, 2004: 1). To ignore the imprint of Chinese civilisation upon Beijing’s foreign policy would therefore be “unforgivable” (Ibid.).

Constructivism, or social constructivism, as one of the newer approaches beside the traditional theories4 of realism and liberalism, focuses on intersubjective beliefs such as ideas, conceptions and assumptions, and their role in international relations. Constructivists assume that human relations, and therefore international politics, consist essentially of those thoughts and ideas and not only of material conditions or forces as realists do, for example. These beliefs, which build the fundamental component for any relations, compose and express the interests and identities of people, for example the way people conceive of themselves in their relations with others (Jackson and Sørensen, 2003: 254).

An analysis conducted from a constructivist point of view then focuses on the ways in which relations within foreign policy are formed and expressed, for example by means of collective social institutions, such as environmental rights, “which have no material reality but exist only because people collectively believe they exist and act accordingly” (Finnemore and Sikkink, 2001: 392).

Language and the act of negotiating in international relations therefore becomes an important part of analysis. As a part of social construction, language has to be considered as one of the main components of the process of intersubjective thinking and recognition (see for example Onuf, 2001). This is why this dissertation will include official documents of international negotiations where the Chinese government formulated their point of view in the act of social construction through speech acts.

Finally, as constructivism focuses on social structures such as identity or interests, as well as norms or ideas, it is considered to be the ideal theoretical framework to conduct the planned analysis. It can deliver a contribution to the academic research that has been done in this field from different, ‘traditional’ theoretical points of views.

The key concepts of constructivism will be explained in this chapter - before, a short historical development of the approach will be given. The goal of this theoretical chapter is the development of hypotheses which will act as a basis for further research.

2.1 Deep Roots - A Brief Introduction to the Historical Background of Constructivism

For the landscape of theories within International Relations (IR), the end of the Cold War meant a significant opportunity for the development of new approaches.

Constructivism had already become increasingly popular in the 1980s, particularly in North American IR. After the end of the Cold War, constructivists mainly criticised the established realism’s uncertainty in explanations about the future, which was due to its focus on material structures, as constructivists claimed. They argued that a shift towards an analysis of thoughts and ideas would lead to a better approach to explain concepts such as anarchy or power balancing (Jackson and Sørensen, 2003: 162).

The shift from realism towards liberalism that followed the end of the Cold War within the IR community has produced both analytical and empirical results. It opened “serious blind spots and silences”, though, which can be seen as being responsible for the following blossoming of social constructivism in the 1990s (Ruggie, 1998: 856). Alexander Wendt, as one of the most important constructivist scholars and the main reference for this chapter, criticised both realism and liberalism as they were not able to explain the development of states' identities and interests which have to be seen as the basis for international relations (Wendt, 1992).

However, the constructivist approach as such is not new; in fact, constructivism has deeper roots which can mainly be found in sociology and philosophy (see for example Finnemore, 1996c). Both Immanuel Kant and Max Weber can be seen as important forerunners of today’s constructivist approach. The term social constructivism itself, however, did not arise before 1989, when it was featured in an analytical study by Nicholas Onuf (Onuf, 1989). Yet, the sociologist Anthony Gidden’s closely related term, “structuration theory”, was in use at an earlier date (Giddens, 1979, 1981). His work builds an important basis for constructivist ideas.

Finally, the establishment of constructivism in IR theory was based on both the historical events (the end of the Cold War) and the theoretical discussion between IR scholars. The result was a new approach that challenged the rationalism and positivism of neo-realism and neo-liberalism while pushing critical theorists away from metatheoretical critique to the empirical analysis of international relations (Reus-Smit, 2005: 188).5

2.2 Key assumptions of constructivism

The key focus of constructivism lies, in short, on human consciousness and its role in international relations (Ruggie, 1998: 856). Therefore, international structures are seen to be social structures, rather than material ones.

According to constructivist ideas, the social world is not a given one. It is not something ‘out there’ that exists independently of the thoughts and ideas of the people involved in it. Everything involved in the social world of men and women is made by them. Alexander Wendt’s often quoted title “Anarchy is what states make of it” (Wendt, 1992) captures exactly this key idea. According to Wendt, there is no objective international world and therefore no anarchy as neo-realists explain it.

Similar to traditional rational approaches, the central actors in the constructivist approach are collectives, meaning states or big social coalitions. Wendt specifically points out his “state-centric approach”. According to this, states are the “principal units of analysis for international political theory” (Wendt, 1994: 385); however, contrary to other approaches, such as a Pluralist, Marxist or Weberian view of the state, constructivists define states as key actors that interact with their societies:

“(T)he reference object of “the state” should be conceptualized as an organizational actor that is internally related to the society it governs by a structure of political authority (….)” (Wendt, 1999: 201)

Regarding the structure of state-society relations, it does not matter if the object of analysis is of a democratic, monarchical, communist, etc. nature.

Contrary to realism, constructivism sees actors as inherently social; they are products of their social environment. States take individual roles in these social structures. Wendt explains:

“The fact that roles are "taken" means that, in principle, actors always have a capacity for "character planning", for engaging in critical self-reflection and choices designed to bring about changes in their lives.” (Wendt, 1992: 419)

As fundamentally social beings, states as well as individuals cannot be separated from the context in which they exist - a context “of normative meaning which shapes who they are and the possibilities available to them” (Fierke, 2007: 170).

Finally, constructivists assume that complex cultural and social structures shape state interests and behaviour in international relations. They pay particular attention to the “cultural-institutional-normative aspects” of this complexity (Jackson and Sørensen, 2003: 257). Following this idea, the reality is not only formed by material structures, but to an important degree by values, thoughts, beliefs, etc. - that means social components:

“Constructivism is the view that the manner in which the material world shapes and is shaped by human action and interaction depends on dynamic normative and epistemic interpretations of the material world. (…) (C)ollective understandings provide people with reasons why things are as they are and indications as to how they should use their material abilities and power. (…) The identities, interests and behavior of political agents are constructed by collective meanings, interpretations and assumptions about the world.” (Adler, 1997: 322-324)

These social components, that have to be considered as key categories within constructivist ideas, will be explained in the following pages as a basis for the development of hypothesis.

2.2.1 The three “I”s: Identities, Interests and Ideas

According to constructivism, actors acquire identities which Wendt defines as “relatively stable, role-specific understandings and expectations about self” (Wendt, 1992: 398) by participating in collective meanings. Thereby, “(i)dentity, with its appropriate attachments of psychological reality, is always identity within a specific, socially constructed world" (Wendt, 1992: 398, quoting Berger, 1996: 111).

What status states have in relation to other states, or in other words, their identity, can be mapped on a continuum from egoistic to cooperative (see Wendt, 1994). Where a state is located on this continuum depends on the interaction with other states; it is not pre-determined by systemic structures (McSweeney, 1999: 117).

Identities are the basis of interests (Ibid.). According to constructivists, actors do not have a "portfolio" of interests that they carry around independent of social context; instead, they define their interests in the process of defining situations (Wendt, 1992: 398). In his article “What Makes the World Hang Together?”, Ruggie points out the relationship between identity and interest: “(T)he identity of the same state can change and pull its interests along.” (Ruggie, 1998: 863) Or, as Wendt points out: “Social identities and interests are always in process during interaction.” (Wendt, 1994: 386)

As constructivists assume that the international system consists of thoughts and ideas, the system will change if an actor’s thoughts and ideas change (Jackson and Sørensen, 2003: 162). So, the development of interests is strongly linked to intersubjective actions. As Finnemore points out, “(i)nterests are not just 'out there' waiting to be discovered; they are constructed through social interaction”

(Finnemore, 1996a: 2). National interests in particular are therefore an important category as they have to be recognised as social facts:

“(…) (T)he representations created by state officials make clear who and what ‘we’ are, who and what ‘our enemies’ are, in what ways ‘we’ are threatened by ‘them’ and how ‘we’ might best deal with those ‘threats’. (…) National interests, then, are social constructions that emerge out of a ubiquitous and unavoidable process of representation through which meaning is created.” (Weldes, 1996: 283-285)

One of the key characteristics of the constructivist approach is its focus on an ideational view, rather than on a materialist view. Ideas therefore are an important category6. “Ideas are mental constructs held by individuals, sets of distinctive beliefs, principles and attitudes that provide broad orientations for behaviour and policy.” (Tannenwald, 2005: 15) Ideas then “define the meaning of material power” (Tannenwald, 2005: 19; also see Ruggie, 2000: 20-22). Wendt emphasises this idea:

“The claim is not that ideas are more important than power and interest, or that they are autonomous from power and interest. The claim is rather that power and interest have the effects they do in virtue of the ideas that make them up.” (Wendt, 1999: 135)

2.2.2 What is good, what is bad: Norms and Rules

Norms can be defined as “shared expectations about appropriate behaviour held by a community of actors” (Finnemore, 1996a: 22). Unlike ideas, which are mostly held in the private sphere, norms are always social constructs; they are shared between varieties of actors. They are therefore not only subjective, but inter subjective (Ibid.).

Constructivists insist that norms are “wholly autonomous and can fundamentally shape the interests and identities of power actors” (Hobson, 2000: 147). This can be in either a good way or a bad way; social norms can prescribe ethically reprehensible behaviour like slavery (Finnemore, 1996a: 32). Also, 'good' norms can be violated.

It is possible that norms conflict with one another in their prescriptions. This makes moral argument about the relative importance of international normative precepts a particularly salient part of international relations (Risse, 2000).

Rules, and this includes both legal rules and non-legal norms, are recognised as crucial as they stand in between people and society and therefore enable the twoway process of construction to be an ongoing one (Goldstein, 2005: 126). Constructivists distinguish between regulative and constitutive rules:

“Regulative rules are intended to have causal effects - getting people to approximate speed limit, for example. Constitutive rules define the set of practices that make up a particular class of consciously organized social activity - that is to say, they specify what counts as that activity.” (Ruggie, 1998: 871)

After giving this definition, Ruggie explains the difference between regulative and constitutive rules by making a comparison with the rules of either traffic or chess. On the one hand, traffic would exist, even if there were no rules for it (regulative). On the other hand, the game of chess could not exist without the rules that constitute the game (Ibid.).

Finally, it can be concluded that “constitutive rules are the institutional foundation of all social life” (Ruggie, 1998: 873), and therefore “define the identity of a state” (Hobson, 2000: 147). This becomes especially important when analysing the international system. “Identity and interests are defined by international forces, that is, by the norms of behaviour embedded in international society.” (Jackson and Sørensen, 2003: 169) Finnemore and Sikkink (1998) develop the idea of the norm life cycle that describes the origin of norms as well as the degree to which norms are internalised. According to this, norms evolve through three stages: emergence, cascade and internalisation.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 2: Norm life cycle (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998: 896)

The completion of the life cycle is thereby not an inevitable process. Rather, many norms fail to reach the tipping point and finally remain un-internalised (Finnemore and Sikkink, 1998: 895). With regard to environmental politics especially, it has to be said that many norms - both on a domestic front as well as on an international level - are not fully internalised yet.

The social norm that builds the basis for the following analysis - following the acknowledgement that today’s environmental issues are real and serious - could be formulated as: “It is urgent to find a solution for environmental problems on the global level”. Or, from the international community’s point of view: “China has to get involved in global environmental governance to find an effective solution for today’s environmental problems”.

2.2.3 Shaping states’ interests: International institutions

According to Alexander Wendt, all theories of international relations are based on the social theories of the relationship between agency, process, and social structure. In fact, many constructivists contend that agents and structures are “mutually constituted” (Reus-Smit, 2005: 197), while others emphasise the importance of structure over agency (for example Finnemore, 1996c). Wendt himself focuses on structuralist explanations as he considers them to be central in the analysis of social interaction (Wendt, 1987: 363).

Institutions are an important part of this structure, especially on the international level. Wendt defines them as follows:

“An institution is a relatively stable set or "structure" of identities and interests. Such structures are often codified in formal rules and norms, but these have motivational force only in virtue of actors' socialization to and participation in collective knowledge. Institutions are fundamentally cognitive entities that do not exist apart from actors' ideas about how the world works.” (Wendt, 1992: 399)

Together with Raymond Duvall, Wendt points out another component of institutions: they “structure and organize ensembles of practices” (Wendt and Duvall, 1989: 60). Here, it becomes clear that all international institutions have both structural and systemic dimensions that contribute to the production of states’ preferences and practices, and therefore to the production of international order (Wendt and Duvall, 1989). Social structures in general, in which states and their preferences are embedded, are characterised by “shared understandings, expectations, or knowledge” (Wendt, 1995: 73).

At the same time, the term institution does not automatically refer to cooperation. Rather, institutions may be cooperative or conflictual7. However, they often are a starting point for international communication and therefore, through mutual learning processes, new intersubjective understandings and commitments.

Institutions act as a forum where norms, ideas and beliefs are exchanged and 'learned'. Yet, it is important to mention that states are self-taught, that means there is no such thing as a 'teacher' of good behaviour or social norms in international relations. This way, however, institutions finally transform identities and interests as states define themselves in the process of reciprocal interaction (Wendt, 1992: 405).

For example, Wendt points out that the processes by which ‘egoistic’ states learn to cooperate are at the same time processes of reconstructing their interests in terms of shared commitments to social norms (Wendt, 1992: 417) which often happens in the arena of international institutions.


1 Even though the distinction between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (RC), usually known as Taiwan, has to be kept in mind, this essay will use the term China to refer to the PRC so as not to impede the reading flow.

2 At least 60 per cent of Chinese low income workers are dependent on rural livelihoods (Cannon, 2000: 6).

3 For further thoughts on this point and references, see Chapter 2.

4 The question whether constructivism can be seen as an independent theory of International Relations (IR) is debatable. While Ruggie states that constructivists “have not yet managed to formulate a fully fledged theory of their own” (Ruggie, 1998: 856), this dissertation acknowledges constructivism as an IR theory, as many of present day introductions to IR theory do. For further thoughts on this question, see e.g. Onuf, 1998; Wendt, 1999; Finnemore, 1996a: 27; Jackson and Sørensen, 2003; Fierke, 2007: 174.

5 As with every other theory, it has to be said that there is no such thing as “the constructivism”. There are “sociological variants, feminist variants, jurisprudential approaches, genealogical approaches, an emancipatory constructivism and a more strictly interpretative kind” (Ruggie, 1998: 880). This dissertation, and particularly this chapter, refer to the main ideas of constructivist approaches and therefore hopefully feature most of those.

6 Some constructivist scholars distinguish between various kinds of ideas, for example, Goldstein and Keohane work with a typology that defines three different types of ideas (see Goldstein and Keohane, 1993). Due to a lack of space, these typologies cannot be analysed further in this dissertation.

7 In his article “Constructing International Politics”, Wendt transfers this idea on the explanation of war and peace and states: “Social construction talk is (…) analytically neutral between conflict and co operation” (Wendt, 1995: 76). For further thoughts on this idea, also see Jepperson/Wendt/Katzenstein, 1996: 39.

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Social structures as incentives for a foreign environmental policy?
A foreign policy analysis of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from a constructivist point of view
University of Southampton
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China, Asia, Environment, Environmental policy, politics, Climate change, International relations, constructivism
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Jana Kötter (Author), 2012, Social structures as incentives for a foreign environmental policy?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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