The Long Run Dynamics of Territorial Disputes

by Doug Gibler on October 10, 2012 · 11 comments

in International Relations

In my last post I suggested that public reactions of nationalism and political intolerance in Japan and China in the wake of the recent Senkaku Islands dispute actually follow a pattern similar to most other territorial disputes. Here, I describe the possible long-term effects of territorial issues like these—when territorial disputes remain unresolved and both states continue to be threats to the other.

While the dynamics of this latest dispute between Japan and China do not presage large-scale, long-term institutional changes in either country, that has not been the case for other disputes between these countries in the past (for example, the 1930s and the Japanese establishment of Manchukuo).  Indeed, China’s centralized state and large army is largely a function of responses to its threatening neighbors, including Imperial Japan.

Institutional Changes

Consistent threats to homeland territories can both strengthen and centralize the institutions of the state.  The Senkaku Islands differ from most other territorial disputes in two very important ways.  First, the major prize is a group of islands, not bordering territories, so land armies will not be sitting within the state challenging the territories.  Second, the islands do not compromise core territories for either state, so the level of threat to the homeland is not immediate or large.  Both of these factors discourage the centralization that follows most territorial disputes.

In most cases the defense of territories requires large armies to both respond to the challenges and also hold sovereignty over the disputed territories.  This causes problems for the citizens in nearby areas since large armies can also eventually bring repression by the state.  However, immediate survival takes precedence over state or elite strength, and already-nationalized citizens will support increased militarization.  In Chapter 5 of my book, the Territorial Peace: Borders, State Development, and International Conflict, I demonstrate a strong connection between territorial disputes, army size, and eventual repression.  No matter how small or insignificant, territorial disputes over homeland territories lead the average country to immediately increase state military personnel by over 100,000 men (after controls added for wealth, population, etc).  In turn, these military increases are associated with 20-30% increases in the level of repression by the state in the three years following the territorial dispute.

Armies in these cases tend to just sit in or near the contested territories.  Demobilization risks power asymmetries, and peace accords without the withdrawal of forces do not eliminate the likelihood that each state will continue to threaten the other.   This creates a cycle of conflict and constant threat in the area that can cause dramatic institutional changes.

For example, in the last post I described how opposition parties are likely to support the leader at early stages of a territorial dispute.  This type of political climate makes institutional centralization for the leader much easier.  Wanting to stay in power and/or forward their policies, leaders use the new political environment created by the dispute to eliminate veto players within the state.  This is intended to increase the ability of the executive to wield power during crisis—and that power tends not to go away.  With control of the army by the executive, few can challenge the process of state centralization.  That is why I find that rivalries over territory lead to more than a 5% reduction, per annum, in the number of checks on the executive.  A case like the dispute over Manchukuo, lasting over fourteen years, would cause a reduction of over half the veto players in the state.

Authoritarianism and Democracy

This argument explains why territorial issues and authoritarian governments co-evolve regionally, as Alex Braithwaite and I point out in a forthcoming article in the British Journal of Political Science.  Territorial disputes tend to fester, causing large armies and an institutional centralization that magnifies the power of the executive within the state.  Without checks on executive power, a repressive authoritarianism is the result.  This is why, following centuries of territorial disputes with its neighbors, Japan and the Soviet Union, China has developed a state with strong executive power and an army capable of repressing its large population.

Think of the converse of this story, though.  What happens when territorial issues are resolved?  In Japan’s case, the United States removed both the emperor’s institutions of control within the state and the influence of the military on politics.  Japan, an island with few direct threats to its core homelands, became a territorially satisfied state and, eventually, a strong democracy.

Once territorial issues are resolved in a state, public opinion becomes more diverse, and the need for large-scale militarization disappears.  Party competition returns, checks on the power of the executive grow, and de-centralization of the state follows.  Further, if the state has the requisite level of wealth, or a middle class, or whatever other factors are necessary, then democratization becomes likely in the state, as Jaroslav Tir and I find when examining states at “positive territorial peace”, or those that have settled their borders with peaceful territorial transfers.  Imagined in this way, the argument implies that democracies are but a subset of all the states that are at Territorial Peace.
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