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.
Note: I will be periodically blogging about territorial conflict and state development issues on the blog for the book.  You can also follow those posts with this RSS feed.




LFC October 11, 2012 at 12:33 am

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.

I would have thought the Communist-Nationalist civil war and the place of military mobilization and guerrilla struggle in Mao’s thought would have had at least something to do with why the PRC has a substantial army. Also, it seems a little bit odd to refer to Japan’s invasion of Machuria in 1931 and subsequent invasion of China in 1937 as “a territorial dispute.” Japan wanted to conquer the entire country. Rather different from the territorial disputes that, say, China and India or even China and the USSR had over the years, in which invasion and conquest were never really genuine possibilities.

Joey October 11, 2012 at 10:22 am

Well said, LFC. The fact of a correlation between properties of cases does not allow you to infer the existence/operation of a mechanism in any particular case.

doug gibler October 11, 2012 at 10:46 am

LFC, I think I can agree with your first point without affecting my argument, no? Let’s grant that ideology and civil war played a role in this particular case, maybe even a big role. There will actually be idiosyncratic factors across all threats that will have some (random) effect on the relationship between threat and army growth. I’m not discounting that. However, external threats still make it a lot easier for leaders to raise military personnel, and China has had lots of threats to its territories over time. In this way they’re like all the other states in my sample that have substantial personnel growth after threats to their territories.

As for a territorial dispute, how is a threat to conquering the state not a threat to its territory? Seems like a pretty big external threat to me.

doug gibler October 11, 2012 at 11:13 am

LFC (and Joey),

One other thing that really strikes me– I can’t believe I’m getting push back on the argument that external threat leads to increases in the military! Don’t we have a few centuries of IR theories arguing just this (and tons of data confirming it…)? I think the bigger leap is the next connection I make, showing that repression follows the personnel increases. What do you think of that link in this particular case?

I’ll leave alone the old case study/quant debate: both are incredible abstractions from reality but both are very useful for understanding the world.

LFC October 11, 2012 at 1:46 pm

(1) I was pushing back not on the argument that external threat leads to increases in the military, but to the way the point was phrased in the post (“territorial disputes tend to fester, causing large armies”), which didn’t seem to acknowledge the role of idiosyncratic factors. Of course I realize that a blog post is not a book and that one has to compress and write in broad strokes. Still, the way the post put it was a little too categorical, IMO.

(2) I’m not an expert on China and its territorial disputes but Taylor Fravel is, and I note in his comment below he says that PLA growth has tracked with fear of invasion and conquest, not with discrete territorial disputes. (I didn’t know this, and I either didn’t know or had forgotten about China’s fear of all-out war with the Soviets in the late 60s and the 70s.) This distinction btw. a territorial dispute and invasion/conquest was what I was getting at, although obviously one can define “territorial dispute” broadly to encompass every MID over territory, from two ships firing water cannons or one live round at each other to, e.g., Japan’s destruction (or near-destruction) of Nanjing.

3) Repression following personnel increases: Here your qualification “no checks on the executive” seems important. India and China fought a border in ’62. Was there an immediate increase in repression in India? There was Indira Gandhi’s “emergency” but that didn’t happen until 1975, iirc.

LFC October 11, 2012 at 1:48 pm

correction: “border war”

kerokan October 11, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Two recent papers nicely (and empirically) support the idea that “external threat leads to increases in the military.”

The recent Nordhaus, Oneal and Russett paper in the International Organization estimates for each country-year a “probability of fatal MID” (using mostly structural factors, which is important b/c that reduces the concern for endogeneity) and then shows that this estimated probability of conflict (ie. external threat) predicts that country-year’s military expenditure well. The paper’s title is “The Effects of the International Security Environment on National Military Expenditures”.

The second paper is “Quest for Political Survival” by Cemal Eren Arbatli at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. This paper shows that a country’s military expenditure is positively correlated with the neighbors’ military expenditures.

Taylor Fravel October 11, 2012 at 12:21 pm

I look forward to reading the book, but what is the definition of a territorial dispute in the analysis? Since 1949, the PRC has been involved in 23 unique territorial disputes with its neighbors. It has also faced (or believed that it faced) total war twice, first with the US in the 1950s and, especially, with the Soviets in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. The size of the PLA tracks with fear of conquest and invasion, not its discrete territorial disputes. The PLA in fact shrank dramatically in the 1950s from 6M to 3M even though the PRC initiated all but one of its territorial claims during this period. The PLA then grew in the late 1960s and 1970s in response to the prospect of a Soviet invasion aimed at seizing Beijing (not the disputed sectors along the border with the Soviets) after settling six territorial disputes (with North Korea, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and Burma). The PLA then shrunk to around 3M in the 1980s as the Soviet threat waned, even though it remained in many territorial disputes. The PLA has never been smaller than it is today, despite the growing salience of the dispute over Taiwan.

doug gibler October 11, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Hi Taylor, I’m using the CoW definition of disputes– threat, display, use of force between two countries– and define territorial according to their revision codes (Jones, Bremer, and Singer, 1996). Perhaps the key distinction that’s not being highlighted here is that I separate territorial dispute initiations from cases in which the state is targeted by a territorial dispute. I also control for land contiguous/non-contiguous disputes. I argue that being targeted by a territorial dispute from your neighbor would cause a sense of threat to homeland territories (though, granted, I didn’t think of the US in North Korea).

So, I think it’s consistent with my argument that PLA decreases would occur during territorial dispute initiations. I also don’t think Taiwan poses much (any?) of a threat to mainland China.

Thanks for joining the conversation, and I would love to talk more about your book at some point. Doug

Mark Peffley October 17, 2012 at 7:48 am

This looks very interesting, Doug. So glad to see that your work with Marc Hutchison and others (Steve Miller) is in print and getting notice! I’ve always thought the JOP article Marc published from his dissertation (an idea he developed in my graduate seminar!) was excellent work (you link it as, “(see also an early article in the JoP)”). And I very much like the other studies by you, Marc and others. Marc really developed the idea of territorial threat and political intolerance by thinking about the Israeli case.

It’s always important to use different designs to test hypotheses, which is why Marc and I are working on a longitudinal study of political tolerance in Israel with Michal Shamir at Tele-Aviv University testing some of Marc’s original ideas. In our multilevel analysis, we combine 20 Israeli surveys from 1980 to 2011 with terrorism data from GTD. In the graph posted here:,
we show that the number of terrorist attacks in Israel six months prior to the survey increased political intolerance toward domestic groups, particularly among older Israelis on the right (i.e., see the sharp downward sloping line). Although there are studies in the U.S. showing an upswing in political intolerance after the 9/11 attacks, our data extend over a much longer 30-year period in a country where the number of terrorist attacks per year is quite high compared to advanced industrial democracies in the West.

doug gibler October 17, 2012 at 11:53 pm


That graph looks great! What’s really interesting here, I think, is that Israelis generally consider this type of violence to be an external threat. Is that right? If so, it would fit with the general attitude changes I’m discussing in the previous post, that external threat breeds centralization. It also fits well with Marc’s and my argument that found democracy to be statistically insignificant as a predictor of tolerance, using your data and controlling for threat.

Oh, I think you also commented on the wrong post… the attitudinal argument was the first post. Give my best to the Kentucky folks! Glad you’re there and well!

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