Rethinking Chinese Territorial Disputes: How the Value of Contested Land Shapes Territorial Policies
What explains the timing of when states abandon a delaying strategy to change the status quo of one territorial dispute? And when this does happen, why do states ultimately use military force rather than concessions, or vice versa? This dissertation answers these questions by examining four major Chinese territorial disputes - Chinese-Russian and Chinese-Indian frontier disputes and Chinese-Vietnamese and Chinese-Japanese offshore island disputes. I propose a new theory which focuses on the changeability of territorial values and its effects on territorial policies. I argue that territories have particular meaning and value for particular state in particular historical and international settings. The value of a territory may look very different to different state actors at one point in time, or to the same state actor at different points in time. This difference in perspectives may largely help explain not only why, but when state actors choose to suddenly abandon the status quo. Particularly, I hypothesize that a cooperative territorial policy is more likely when the economic value of the territory increases (contingent on low symbolic and military value), while an escalation policy is more likely when the symbolic or military value increases, independent of economic factors. As a result, disputes over territories with high economic salience are, all else equal, more likely to be resolved peacefully, while disputes over territories with high symbolic or military salience are more likely to either fester for long periods of time or escalate into armed conflict. Through historical process tracing and across-case comparison, this study found that (a) Chinese policies toward the frontier disputes conform well to large parts of my original hypothesis, which explains territorial policies in terms of changing territorial values; but that (b) Chinese policies towards offshore island disputes conform more clearly to state-centered theories based on opportunism, realpolitik, and changes in relative power. I suggest that as China's naval power becomes stronger, and it feels less vulnerable in the region, China will be less likely to escalate and more likely to cooperate over the disputed islands, particularly if such cooperation can draw allies closer to China rather than the United States.