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Strong Borders, Secure Nation: Cooperation and Conflict in China's Territorial Disputes

Strong Borders, Secure Nation: Cooperation and Conflict in China's Territorial Disputes

by M. Taylor Fravel


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ISBN-13: 9780691136097
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 09/14/2008
Series: Princeton Studies in International History and Politics , #111
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 408
Sales rank: 355,210
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

M. Taylor Fravel is associate professor of political science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Strong Borders, Secure Nation Cooperation and Conflict in China's Territorial Disputes

By M. Taylor Fravel Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13609-7


China is the new great power of the twenty-first century. Whether its rise will be peaceful or violent is a fundamental question for the study and practice of international relations. Unlike many past power transitions, China's current economic growth has occurred largely through its acceptance of the prevailing rules, norms, and institutions of the international system. Nevertheless, ambiguity and anxiety persist around how China will employ the military power that its growing wealth creates.

Amid this historical change, one concern is China's potential for violent conflict with other states over territory. The congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, for example, stated in its 2006 annual report that China might "take advantage of a more advanced military to threaten use of force, or actually use force, to facilitate desirable resolutions ... of territorial claims." Such concerns have merit. Historically, rapid internal economic growth has propelled states to redefine and expand the interests that they pursue abroad. Economic development funds the acquisition of more robust military capabilities to pursue and defend these interests. Often such expansion results in the escalation of territorialdisputes with other states. More generally, the disruption in the balance of power generates uncertainty among the leading states in the system about the security of vital interests and the structure of international order.

In its territorial disputes, however, China has been less prone to violence and more cooperative than a singular view of an expansionist state suggests. Since 1949, China has participated in twenty-three unique territorial disputes with its neighbors on land and at sea. Yet it has pursued compromise and offered concessions in seventeen of these conflicts. China's compromises have often been substantial, as it has usually offered to accept less than half of the contested territory in any final settlement. In addition, these compromises have resulted in boundary agreements in which China has abandoned potential irredentist claims to more than 3.4 million square kilometers of land that had been part of the Qing empire at its height in the early nineteenth century. In total, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has contested roughly 238,000 square kilometers or just 7 percent of the territory once part of the Qing.

Although China has pursued compromise frequently, it has nevertheless used force in six of its territorial disputes. Some of these conflicts, especially with India and Vietnam, were notably violent. Others, such as the crises over Taiwan in the 1950s and the clash with the Soviet Union in 1969, were tense moments in the Cold War involving threats to use nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, despite a willingness to use force in certain disputes, China has seized little land that it did not control before the outbreak of hostilities.

The wide variation in China's behavior is puzzling for scholars of international relations and China alike. Leading theories of international relations would expect a state with China's characteristics to be uncompromising and prone to using force in territorial disputes, not conciliatory. Contrary to scholars of offensive realism, however, China has rarely exploited its military superiority to bargain hard for the territory that it claims or to seize it through force. China has likewise not become increasingly assertive in its territorial disputes as its relative power has grown in the past two decades. Contrary to others who emphasize the violent effects of nationalism, which would suggest inflexibility in conflicts over national sovereignty, China has been quite willing to offer territorial concessions despite historical legacies of external victimization and territorial dismemberment under the Qing. And contrary to scholars who stress the role of political institutions, China has escalated only a minority of its territorial conflicts even with a highly centralized, authoritarian political system that places few internal constraints on the use of force.

China's pattern of cooperation and escalation in its territorial disputes may also be surprising for observers and scholars of China. At the end of the Cold War, many expected that China's numerous territorial disputes would be a leading source of instability in East Asia. With the increased visibility of popular nationalism over the past two decades, other scholars maintain that China harbors broad irredentist claims to land on its periphery that its growing power will allow it to pursue. Similarly, amid the prominence of popular nationalism, China is seen as "prone to muscle-flexing" in its foreign policy in order to deflect attention from growing social unrest. Finally, some scholars maintain that China has a strategic preference for offensive uses of force, especially in zero-sum conflicts such as territorial disputes.

Nevertheless, China has been more likely to compromise over disputed territory and less likely to use force than many policy analysts assert, international relations theories might predict, or China scholars expect. China's varied behavior sparks the questions that this book seeks to answer. Why has China pursued compromise in some disputes but used force in others? More generally, why and when do states cooperate in territorial conflicts? Under what conditions do states escalate disputes to high levels of violence instead of cooperating?

Answers to these questions can help illuminate the trajectory of China's rise as a great power. In an international system composed of sovereign states, behavior in territorial disputes offers a fundamental indicator of whether a state pursues status-quo or revisionist foreign policies. Historically, contested land has been the most common issue over which states collide and go to war. If states are likely to resort to force as a tool of statecraft, it will perhaps be most evident in how they pursue territorial goals. As China today remains involved in several disputes, these questions are far from academic. Violence over some areas that China claims, such as Taiwan or the Senkaku Islands, would likely result in hostility between China and the United States, which maintains close ties with Taipei and Tokyo.

Answers to these questions are also hard to find. Although research on China's conflict behavior highlights the role of territorial disputes, they have yet to be examined systematically. Instead, individual studies have weighed the legal merits of China's sovereignty claims or examined specific disputes, such as the boundary conflict between China and India. The few comprehensive studies that do exist investigate only China's compromises in the 1960s and were unable to benefit from the flowering of new Chinese-language source materials in the last decade. Finally, no study compares China's willingness to compromise or use force in all these conflicts, analysis that is key to understanding China's behavior.


My explanation of China's behavior is rooted in two theories that explain how states choose to pursue their territorial claims. One theory examines the sources of cooperation in territorial disputes, while the other examines the sources of escalation. As detailed in chapter 1, each theory starts with the assumption that states choose among three generic strategies when managing an existing territorial conflict. They can (1) do nothing and delay settlement, (2) offer concessions and compromise, or (3) threaten or use force. Most of the time, a strategy of doing nothing is least risky, due to the costs associated with leaders' potential punishment at home for compromising over national sovereignty and the uncertainty of outcomes when a crisis escalates. Factors that increase the costs that a state bears for contesting territory relative to delaying, then, explain why and when states either compromise or use force in their disputes.

A state is most likely to compromise and offer concessions to counter internal or external threats to its security. Compromise is possible because pressing a claim to another state's land carries some price or opportunity cost, usually unrealized military, economic, or diplomatic assistance. When these costs outweigh the value of the land at stake, compromise becomes more attractive than delay, and a state will trade concessions for aid from a territorial opponent to counter the more processing threat that it faces. External threats to the security or survival of the state are one source of compromise. When engaged in acute competition with a rival, for example, a state can use territorial concessions to form an alliance with a third party against its adversary. Internal threats to the strength and stability of a state offer a second source of compromise. When faced with an armed rebellion, for instance, a state can trade territorial concessions for assistance from neighboring states, such as policing the border or denying safe haven to potential insurgents.

Although a state's overall security environment creates incentives for cooperation, shifts in a state's bargaining power in a territorial dispute explain decisions to escalate these conflicts. A state's bargaining power consists of the amount of contested land that it occupies and its ability to project military power over the entire area under dispute. These two factors shape a state's ability to control contested land and achieve a favorable negotiated settlement. When a state concludes that an adversary is strengthening its relative position in a dispute, inaction becomes more costly than threatening or even using force to halt or reverse its decline. A state that faces a much stronger opponent may also use force when an adversary's power suddenly and temporarily weakens, creating a window of opportunity to seize land and strengthen its otherwise weak negotiating position.

To test these theories, I use a "medium-n" research design that examines China's decisions to cooperate or escalate in each of its twenty-three disputes since 1949. As both types of decision are infrequent, they can all be identified and compared with relative ease. For each dispute, I examine the conditions before and after the change in strategy to identify those factors that vary with decisions to compromise or use force, but not with delay. I then trace the process by which these decisions were made to determine whether these factors have the causal effect that my theories predict.

The chapters that follow exploit untapped Chinese-language sources. These documents include party history materials, oral histories, memoirs of senior leaders, government training manuals, and provincial gazetteers as well as limited materials from a variety of archives. These sources reveal disputes, boundary agreements, and key turning points in high-level negotiations that were previously unknown outside China.


After outlining my theories of cooperation and escalation, chapter 1 continues with an overview of China's territorial disputes. China's territorial conflicts are intertwined with the varied challenges of maintaining the territorial integrity of a large and multiethnic state. Ethnic geography, or the location and distribution of ethnic groups, largely defines the different goals that China's leaders have pursued in their country's territorial disputes. The PRC's ethnic geography consists of a densely populated Han Chinese core, a large but sparsely populated non-Han periphery, and unpopulated offshore islands. In frontier disputes on their country's land border, China's leaders seek to maintain control over vast borderlands populated by ethnic minorities that were never ruled directly by any past Chinese empire. In homeland disputes, China's leaders seek to unify what they view as Han Chinese areas not under their control when the PRC was established in 1949, namely Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan. In offshore island disputes, China's leaders aim to secure a permanent maritime presence among unpopulated rocks and islands far from the mainland.

External threats are one mechanism in my theory of cooperation, but internal threats best explain China's willingness to compromise in its many territorial disputes. China has offered concessions in each and every frontier dispute along its land border but not in any homeland disputes, and in only one offshore island dispute. Ethnic minorities who have maintained strong social and economic ties with neighboring states and harbored aspirations for self-determination live in many of the frontiers near China's borders. When faced with internal threats, especially ethnic unrest in the frontiers, China's leaders have been much more willing to offer concessions in exchange for assistance that strengthens the state's control over these regions, such as denying external support to rebels or affirming Chinese sovereignty over the areas of unrest.

Chapter 2 examines China's efforts to compromise in many frontier disputes in the early 1960s. In 1959, a revolt in Tibet sparked the largest internal threat ever to the PRC's territorial integrity. The outbreak of this revolt dramatically increased the cost of maintaining disputes with Burma, Nepal, and India. China offered concessions in its conflicts with these states in exchange for their cooperation in eliminating external support for the rebels and affirming Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. In the spring of 1962, China faced renewed ethnic unrest in the frontiers, especially Xinjiang, during the economic crisis following the failure of the Great Leap Forward. This combination of internal threats to both territorial integrity and political stability increased the cost of contesting land with its neighbors. China pursued compromise in disputes with North Korea, Mongolia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union in order to rebuild its economy and consolidate state control by easing external tensions.

How similar internal threats explain China's efforts to compromise in frontier disputes in the 1990s is demonstrated in chapter 3. In 1989, the upheaval in Tiananmen Square posed an internal threat to the stability of China's socialist system of government. This legitimacy crisis, which the weakening of other communist parties worldwide exacerbated, increased the cost of maintaining territorial disputes with the Soviet Union, Laos, and Vietnam. China traded concessions in exchange for cooperation to counter its diplomatic isolation and ensure the continuation of economic reforms. Soon after Tiananmen, ethnic unrest in Xinjiang posed a new internal threat to the state's territorial integrity. The armed uprisings and demonstrations increased the price for pressing claims against neighboring Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. China compromised in these disputes in exchange for assistance to limit external support for Uighur separatists.

Although windows of opportunity opened by a rival's temporary weakness offer one mechanism in my theory of escalation, China's own declining bargaining power best explains its willingness to use force in its territorial disputes. Since 1949, China's leaders have demonstrated a keen sensitivity to negative shifts in the state's ability to control disputed land. In most instances, China's behavior reflects such concerns with its own weakness, as China has used force either in disputes with its militarily most powerful neighbors or in conflicts where it has occupied little or none of the land that it has claimed.


Excerpted from Strong Borders, Secure Nation by M. Taylor Fravel
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
List of Tables xi
Acknowledgments xiii
Abbreviations xv
CHAPTER ONE: Cooperation and Escalation in Territorial Disputes 10
CHAPTER TWO: Cooperation in Frontier Disputes in the 1960s 70
CHAPTER THREE: Cooperation in Frontier Disputes in the 1990s 126
CHAPTER FOUR: Escalation in Frontier Disputes 173
CHAPTER FIVE:Homeland Disputes 220
CHAPTER SIX: Offshore Island Disputes 267
APPENDIX: Overview of China's Territorial Disputes 321
Bibliography 335
Index 363

What People are Saying About This

Allen Carlson

Tightly framed and carefully reasoned, this excellent book addresses an obvious gap in the study of Chinese foreign policy and national security. I believe that this book will become the benchmark text in the field for years to come.
Allen Carlson, Cornell University


Fravel has given us a compelling and comprehensive account of why China has generally compromised in its territorial disputes with its neighbors rather than resort to force. In the process, he has made significant advances in both international relations theory and Chinese foreign policy.
Robert J. Art, Brandeis University


Fravel uses China, which has had more territories in dispute with neighbors than any other state since World War II, to form and test hypotheses about when states are likely to go to war or cooperate to solve territorial disputes. The result is both the first comprehensive benchmark study of China's behavior along its frontiers and a brilliant contribution to political science.
Chas W. Freeman, Jr., former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs

Alan Wachman

A counterintuitive and bracing dose of reality, Fravel's exemplary book manifests contextual nuance derived from plentiful Chinese sources, an elegant argument, and the conceptual rigor valued in contemporary political science. Strong Borders, Secure Nation will be the standard-bearer among studies of China's experience managing territorial disputes.
Alan Wachman, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University

Alastair Iain Johnston

This excellent book is the first to systematically examine China's handling of territorial disputes and shows why in many cases, the country has been willing to negotiate and concede. The reasons given are novel and provocative, and challenge conventional wisdom about the relationship between domestic unrest and external aggressiveness. This book will be the gold standard for further work on a vital but understudied topic.
Alastair Iain Johnston, Harvard University


Strong Borders, Secure Nation is a significant work of scholarship. M. Taylor Fravel has combined authoritative and extensive research of Chinese documents with sophisticated political science methodologies. The result is both a comprehensive and definitive work on Chinese policy toward border disputes as well as a persuasive theoretical approach to the international politics of territorial conflicts.
Robert S. Ross, Boston College

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