ANALYSIS | Asia’s Territorial Disputes in Comparative Perspective

ANALYSIS | Asia’s Territorial Disputes in Comparative Perspective

By M. Taylor Fravel 
Associate Professor of Political Science Security Studies Program, MIT


Territorial disputes involve a state’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity—its core interests. Historically, they have been the most common issue over which states collide and go to war. Since 1945, Asia has been more prone to conflict over territory and maritime boundaries than other regions in the world. Asia accounts for the greatest number of disputes over territory that have become militarized and that have escalated into interstate wars. 

ANALYSIS | Asia’s Territorial Disputes in Comparative Perspective

Disputes in Asia have also been resistant to settlement, accounting for the lowest rate of settlement when compared with other regions. Most importantly, Asia today has far more territorial disputes than any other part of the world. When combined with the rise of new powers, which are involved in multiple territorial disputes, such conflicts are poised to become an increasing source of tension and instability in the region.


As a region, Asia has witnessed more territorial disputes, and more armed conflicts over disputed territory, than any other region in the world. In 2000, Asia also accounted for almost 40 percent of all active territorial disputes worldwide. This article examines these claims using a data set that was created by Paul Huth and his collaborators (Allee and Huth 2006a; Allee and Huth 2006b; Huth 1996a; Huth and Allee 2002). This data allows for the comparison of overall trends in cooperation and conflict in territorial disputes across regions. Subsequent sections will examine Asia more closely and extend the timeframe of analysis from 2000 to 2012. Consistent with this volume, Asia as a region includes Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Central Asia.

A comparison of trends in Asia’s territorial dispute with other regions of the world is revealing. First, between 1945 and 2000, Asia experienced more territorial disputes than any other part of the world. As Table One shows, Asia accounts for 28 percent of all disputes during this period. In absolute terms, Asia’s share of worldwide territorial disputes is partly an artifact of the large numbers of states in the region, and thus increased opportunities for conflict over territory. Nevertheless, the high incidence of territorial disputes cannot be attributed solely to this. During this same period, Sub-Saharan Africa has had slightly more states than Asia, but 7 accounts for only 18 percent of worldwide territorial disputes. In addition, Asia has had the highest number of disputes per state (roughly 2), along with the Middle East and North Africa.



Table One / Source: Huth Territorial Dispute Data-set. Militarized disputes exclude those that escalated to “wars.” “Settlements” includes those that were reached through arbitration.

Click on the Image to enlarge it.

Second, Asia has experienced more armed conflict over territory than any other region. As Table One demonstrates, Asia accounts for 34 percent of territorial disputes worldwide that have become militarized. Put differently, more than half of territorial disputes in Asia have experienced the threat or use of force and become what scholars of international relations describe as a militarized interstate dispute (Jones, Bremer and Singer 1996). Moreover, militarized disputes over territory in Asia were much more likely to result in an interstate war than such disputes in other regions, with the exception of the Middle East and North Africa. Asia accounts for about 33 percent of all interstate wars over territory from 1945 to 2000, as more than one quarter of the region’s militarized disputes escalated into wars.

Third, territorial disputes in Asia have been more resistant to settlement than those in other regions. Asia accounts for only 20 percent of all territorial disputes that were settled between 1945 and 2000, while the Middle East and North Africa account for the greatest number of settlements. Put differently, only 42 percent of territorial disputes in Asia were settled during this period. The use of international arbitration as a mechanism for resolving territorial disputes in Asia is similar to other regions. The Americas, the Middle East and Asia each account for around 24 percent of settlements reached through some form of arbitration. Interestingly, despite being the most institutionalized region in the world, Europe has had the fewest number of disputes settled through arbitration.

Finally, by 2000, Asia accounted for 38 percent of all unresolved territorial disputes in the world. The region with the second highest number of active disputes, Africa with 13, had roughly half as many disputes as Asia. If the territorial disputes are associated with armed conflict and war, the large number of unresolved disputes in the region should concern scholars and policymakers alike.

One important housekeeping note is necessary before proceeding. For the purposes of comparison, the analysis above uses Huth’s data without any alterations or amendments in order to ensure consistent comparisons across regions. The analysis below presents a more detailed review of disputes in Asia. As a result, it includes some disputes that were not in Huth’s data and extends the scope of analysis by 12 years, from 2000 to 2012, to capture additional episodes of escalation and settlement. As a result, the total number of disputes, militarized episodes, and settlements will differ from the data presented above. 

About The Author:

M. Taylor Fravel is Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at MIT. Taylor is a graduate of Middlebury College and Stanford University, where he received his PhD. He has been a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, a Predoctoral Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, a Fellow with the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He also has graduate degrees from the London School of Economics and Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. In March 2010, he was named Research Associate with the National Asia Research Program launched by the National Bureau of Asian Research and the Woodrow Wilson International Center.

Cite this Article:

Fravel, M. Taylor. Territorial and Maritime Boundary Disputes in Asia. In Saadia M. Pekkanen, John Ravenhill, and Rosemary Foot (Eds.). Oxford handbook of the International Relations in Asia (chapter 27). New York, NY: Oxford University Press, [2014]., http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/92742

Publication Details:

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