China’s behavior in resolving territorial disputes with its neighbors offers an informative case study on how to address regional conflicts and the mechanisms of their resolution. These disputes all boiled down to conflicting claims between China and its neighbors over ownership of the same piece of land (or sea), which hold strategic importance, rich natural resources or high symbolic prominence. Summarizing the history of territorial disputes, experts on conflict resolution generalize the following strategies for resolving territorial disputes.
A delaying strategy implies doing almost nothing, whereby states maintain their territorial claims through public declarations but neither offer concessions nor use force. Significantly, the conflicting parties can defer resolution by participating in negotiations while refusing to compromise. States frequently procrastinate because the alternatives are costly. Countries can pursue different interests by resorting to this strategy and preserving the status quo. One reason may be that а participant in the conflict hopes to strengthen its military and economic potential, create a new or consolidate an existing military-political alliance, and wait for a more favorable international environment. Another reason could be that it anticipates the weakening of its antagonist, its economic and defensive potential, as well as the declining of its positions both on the global international arena and at the regional level. Usually, when resorting to a delaying strategy, the parties to the conflict assume that time is on their side. It’s noteworthy that this strategy does not rule out the possibility of local skirmishes and clashes of varying intensity.
Devising such incidents, the sides may pursue various tactical goals, such as: determining the weaknesses of the enemy and its determination to defend its interests, maneuvering for a critical geographical position, testing new weapons, or assessing the reaction of the international community as well as of domestic constituencies to an attempt to change the status quo unilaterally. Whatever the motivations and expectations of the conflicting sides, one of the main prerequisites for sustaining a delaying strategy is to maintain the military-political parity of the conflicting parties, which in turn implies that the parties do not lag behind each other in economic development.
A cooperation strategy excludes the threat or use of force and involves an offer either to transfer control of some or all of the contested land to the opposing side or drop claims to ownership of land held by the other state. When the importance of bilateral ties with the opposite state increases, cooperation in a dispute becomes more attractive than continuing to press claims and delay settlement. Unless leaders can expect something in return for their state’s territorial concessions, they have no incentive to compromise. Sometimes cooperation can be costly because concessions over national sovereignty and territory can carry a high domestic political price. In the meantime, compromise is possible because claims over another’s land bear a certain price or opportunity cost for the states involved. When these costs outweigh the value of the land, compromise becomes more attractive than delay.
An escalation strategy involves the threat or use of force to seize or coerce an opponent in a territorial dispute. Although there could still be some incentives for cooperation, shifts in a state’s bargaining power in territorial disputes may explain decisions to escalate these conflicts. A state’s bargaining power consists, in particular, of the amount of contested land that it occupies and its ability to project power over the area under dispute. Perceptions of change in bargaining power create incentives for states to use force. Experts refer to incentives created by power shifts as windows. While a “window of vulnerability” is a growing defensive weakness, a “window of opportunity” is a fading offensive advantage. Some political actions can also increase the probability of an inclination toward an escalation strategy. Such activities include administrative declarations and acts to incorporate contested land into the state or determine its status unilaterally; elections and other political acts of the general will; infrastructure projects in disputed areas that increase effective control of disputed territory.
Internal threats to strength and stability may also trigger an escalation strategy. Diversionary war theory claims that leaders facing internal threats to their political survival could pursue conflict abroad. Although the latter may facilitate the efforts of leaders to consolidate societal support, it is the most hazardous issue for leaders to manipulate, since a failure to achieve the “well-intentioned” objectives of escalation would likely result in even greater misfortune for the leadership. Experts opine that a state may resort to force in a territorial dispute, not because of the importance of the contested land, but because of the need to invest in a general reputation for toughness. As the contemporary history of conflicts manifests, coercion without the use of force is less likely to succeed than otherwise.
Since 1949, China has participated in 23 territorial disputes with its neighbors on land and at sea. Based on a general principle of “give and take,” China pursued compromise in 17 of these conflicts and used force in only six cases. Territorial disputes between India and China have a long history and, therefore, I will confine myself to discussing only one notable precedent.
India and China have entered into several legal treaties to stabilize the situation in one of the disputed areas along the Indo-Chinese border. Such arrangements arose from the frequent border face-offs and their potential impact on other aspects of India-China relations. One of the treaties between India and China was the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA) of 1993, followed by the Agreement on Military Confidence-Building Measures in 1996 and by the Protocol for the Implementation of Military Confidence Building Measures in 2005. In addition, the Agreement on Establishing a Working Mechanism on Border Affairs was signed in 2012, which was supplemented with the Agreement on Border Defense Cooperation in 2013.
A vital element of the 1993 and 1996 agreements is that the two sides would keep their forces in the areas along the Line of Actual Contact (LAC) to a minimum level. However, the agreements did not define what comprises the minimum level. The 1996 agreement caps the deployment of major categories of armaments close to the LAC and limits combat aircraft from flying within 10 km of the LAC. Of all the treaty instruments, only the 2012 Agreement was concerned with diplomatic aspects, while others focused on military methods. Despite the fundamental importance assigned to the LAC, the latter is not yet defined, and India and China have different perceptions about it. Although India and China committed themselves to clarification and confirmation of the LAC to reach a common understanding of the alignment in these agreements, this process has made little progress since 2003.
Тhis package of treaties and their enforcement have not eliminated tension on the border. Thus, according to reports, the 2020 stand-off in the Galwan valley was triggered by China moving in troops and equipment to stop construction activity by India. New Delhi said this was well within India’s side of the LAC. The broader context for the tensions appears to be a changing dynamic along the LAC, as India attempts to catch up in improving infrastructure there. Nevertheless, despite the existing disagreements and clashes, the conflicting parties, as well as the expert communities in both countries, agree that, in the absence of an agreement on delimitation and demarcation, the existing legal arrangements have played a significant role in stabilizing the situation on the border at the disputed areas.
Without drawing a direct analogy between the history of conflict resolution of our two valuable international partners, I believe it is important to make some brief conclusions and share relevant suggestions.
While since 1991, Armenia and Azerbaijan, for divergent reasons and with different expectations, preferred, by and large, to adhere to the delaying strategy, in the autumn of 2020, Azerbaijan overtly resorted to the escalation strategy and, with the overwhelming support of Turkey, unleashed a war against the Republic of Artsakh. The devastating results are known, but the dire consequences are still not yet ruled out.
The fragile ceasefire mediated by Russia has not resolved the problem with bell, book and candle, and the destiny of our compatriots in Nagorno-Karabakh is still unclear. Moreover, the ongoing talks about the start of the demarcation and delimitation of borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan contain specific existential issues for Armenia as well. Doubtless, the eventual outcome of the war, by significantly weakening our bargaining power, has created an unfavorable condition for realizing major initiatives. In particular, this concerns the delimitation and demarcation at the most strategic segments of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, which will have far-reaching geopolitical magnitudes if ill-defined and enforced on Armenia. With this in mind, it is worth considering the timely application of the Indo-Chinese experience: to get involved in the process of delimitation and demarcation processes, which seems to be unavoidable, to agree to the delimitation in those sections of the border where there are no disagreements and to resort to temporary solutions where the discords are insurmountable.
We cannot do it alone. The involvement and assistance of the international community are highly in demand, despite all our grievances about the low efficiency of its mediation during the war. Definitely, this proposal is not a panacea, and undoubtedly, its realization is harsh. But the alternative, duress by menaces, is fraught with more dangerous consequences.
In the confusing times in which we are now living, reckless steps or imposed decisions regarding demarcation and delimitation, which are part and parcel of the so-called peace treaty between Armenia and Azerbaijan, might bring unintended historical consequences for the future of our homeland. While political actors in Armenia have engaged in the endless blame game, Azerbaijanis and Turks try to consistently advance their shared strategy of extracting unilateral concessions from the victim of their joint aggression.
The realist tradition of international relations, in addition to standard measures of military and economic capabilities, recognizes the importance of the domestic components of state power that Hans Morgenthau described as the “quality of government” and “national morale.” Miscalculations often come from governments, not the people; interethnic tensions, which diplomats and historians treat as “historical,” are steered and controlled by leaders with very immediate agendas. The public indifference and fatigue from war do not imply that our adversaries should succeed in realizing their ultimate goals at the expense of our primary national interests.
 In resolving bilateral problems, both countries rule out any kind of international mediation.
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