Political Science Interstate Border Dispute Management in the Indo-Pacific
by
Stephen Westcott
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0288

Introduction

The Indo-Pacific region stretches from Japan in the north to Pakistan in the west to Australia in the south and the Micronesian islands in the east. When the various colonial empires withdrew from the region, they left numerous volatile interstate border disputes (IBDs) in their wake. With the balance of power shifting away from the Northern Atlantic and into the Indo-Pacific, the IBDs in the region are gaining more salience. Yet, within academic and public circles, the IBDs in the region have often been overshadowed by discussions over the military balance of power, nuclear brinkmanship, and political economy concerns such as trade route flows or resource competition. While these are unquestionably important issues, this focus on “high politics” tends to trivialize IBDs. This is problematic because, as numerous studies have demonstrated, IBDs have proven to be a leading cause of war and a primary source of international tension during peace. Indeed, many of the IBDs in the Indo-Pacific region are right at the center of the often-volatile region, fueled in part by a growing sense of nationalism within the region, by regional rivalries, and by the competition for strategic resources. Hence, developing a strong understanding of the IBDs that are, if not at the foundation of, the flint and tinder for international conflict is important. In the Indo-Pacific region, there are a number of highly diverse IBDs, ranging in size, salience, and type (territory and maritime). Some of these IBDs are major sources of tension in the region, such as the five-nation claim over the South China Sea at the heart of the Indo-Pacific or the notably bitter and fractious dispute between India and Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir. The Indo-Pacific region also hosts some of the few remaining divided nations, namely, China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan and the two Koreas’ claims over each other. Others are relatively minor IBDs, such as Japan’s dispute with Korea over the Takeshima/Dokdo Island, which sees occasional demonstrations but otherwise has little impact on the two states’ bilateral relations. In between, there exist an array of IBDs of varying importance, ranging from the Sino-Indian border dispute, which often causes tension between the region’s rising nuclear armed superpowers, to the Thai-Cambodian dispute over the Preah Vihear temple complex, to the grossly under-researched Durand Line dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This contribution to Oxford Bibliographies takes stock of the burgeoning literature on all of these issues.

Understanding IBDs

As with most topics within international relations, having a firm grasp on the theory and context is essential to developing a firm understanding of IBDs. Specifically, there are a number of different theories explaining how and why IBDs function, both in general and in the context of the Indo-Pacific specifically. Most of these, understandably, focus on finding explanations for how and why states go to war over IBDs. However, there have been a growing number of theories exploring different facets of IBDs, including their initiation, longevity, and/or resolution as well as the differences between territorial and maritime IBDs. Naturally, these theories should be any researcher’s first port of call. Beyond theory, many researchers will benefit from having a firm grasp on historical examples and case studies provided by the many IBDs in the Indo-Pacific that have been resolved. The Sino-Soviet/Russian border dispute, for example, is often pointed to by scholars as an example of how to solve an intractable border dispute in Asia. In contrast, resolutions of the land borders between China and Vietnam or India and Bangladesh have been seen as only partial successes, with several issues such as the territory’s inhabitants’ citizenship and lingering irredentism remaining unresolved. The geopolitical environment places the IBDs into the contemporary context for the researcher, providing the broader framework that the specific IBD exists within and allowing them to see potential causal factors not necessarily apparent in the disputes’ legal or historical development. In the Indo-Pacific region, international affairs have increasingly been shaped by the rise of China and its growing assertiveness in several areas, including the territorial disputes it has with its neighbors. There are also a number of different stakeholders in the region, with their relationships and rivalries with other states shaping how they approach IBDs in the region. It is also important for researchers to recognize the influence that other factors—such as the growth of nationalism in several countries, the importance of certain trade routes for a state’s economy, and/or the military balance of power—play in state policies toward IBDs.

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