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

By Rosenberg, David | The China Journal, July 2009 | Go to article overview

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


Rosenberg, David, The China Journal


Strong Borders, Secure Nation: Cooperation and Conflict in China's Territorial Disputes, by M. Taylor Fravel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. $70.00/£40.95 (hardcover), $27.95/£16.95 (paperback).

Why and when do states cooperate in territorial disputes? Why and when do these disputes escalate to violence? In this book, based on extensive and previously unexamined Chinese-language sources, M. Taylor Fravel, Associate Professor of Political Science at MIT, provides compelling evidence that in its territorial disputes China has been less prone to violence and more cooperative than realist theory or conventional wisdom about an expansionist state might suggest.

The groundwork for Fravel' s analysis was laid out in his widely cited 2005 article in International Security, "Regime Insecurity and International Cooperation", which describes where, when and why the Chinese government used peaceful means to manage conflicts, often with substantial compromises, even when its hard power was on the increase. Contrary to the diversionary war theory that leaders may instigate international conflict to strengthen their domestic positions during internal instability, Fravel instead contends that China's leaders have primarily compromised internationally when faced with internal threats to regime security.

This book provides both a general theoretical response and a systematic empirical analysis of China's border disputes. The analysis is organized by the area of territorial dispute (frontier, homeland or offshore) and outcome (cooperation, delay or escalation). Fravel finds that China gave 17 substantial concessions in 23 disputes active since 1949, often agreeing to accept less than half of the territory being disputed. In 15 disputes, the compromise created conditions for a final territorial settlement through bilateral agreement.

By contrast, there were 6 disputes in which the Chinese government never agreed to back down. 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.

Fravel argues that China's sense of a decline in the strength of its own claim or in bargaining power best explains its willingness to use force in its territorial disputes. This took place on two notable occasions when China faced challenges from two militarily powerful neighbors, India and the Soviet Union, when PRC leaders concluded that their adversaries sought to profit from China's internal difficulties. In October 1962, after China failed to persuade India to negotiate their contested borders, PLA forces attacked Indian positions "to halt India's increased military deployments along the contested frontier and its occupation of land in the disputed western sector" (p. 7). For similar reasons, in March 1969, during the political instability after the Cultural Revolution, Chinese troops ambushed a Soviet patrol near a disputed island in the Ussuri River because "Soviet troop deployments along the border, the Brezhnev doctrine to intervene in the affairs of socialist states, and an aggressive pattern of Soviet patrolling weakened China's position in the dispute" (p. 8). …

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