Pluralism of pluralisms [Post 27]

International context

The previous posts introduced the notion of contexts in relation to cosmopolitanism and sovereignty.

Any agent (individuals, communities and states) may have presence and be interested in the local, regional and international contexts. In order to bring light to the notion of contexts and their relevance, the blog series will make use of territorial disputes.

This post will introduce and characterize the international context.

The Israeli-Palestine difference, Crimea, Kashmir, the South China Sea, the Persian Gulf and many others are self-evident examples of territorial disputes that include actors foreign to the local and regional situations. The frequent intervention in territorial disputes of strong states such as the United States and the United Kingdom that in principle have no legal or legitimate connection with the matters in dispute (and with or without the permission of local authorities) results in prolonging many differences because of the shift in power—i.e. the balance-tipping effect of having any great power intervene in a local matter. Additionally, the existence of a territorial dispute in certain areas may have a global impact on the spread of acts of terrorism, changes in oil prices, damage to the ecosystem because of the use of nuclear weapons, or threats to international peace and security.

Some of the most relevant issues that have to do with the international context are:

Balance of military forces

Although relevant, the balance of conventional military forces[1] between the claiming party and the target does not have a determinate effect on the decision to dispute the territory.[2] The unbalanced level of military development between the challenger and the challenged agent is not reason enough to understand the initiation of territorial disputes.

Conversely, military pressure may escalate if the relative position of the challenger improves.[3] Militarily weak agents are less likely to initiate or escalate a confrontation.

Finally, military strength is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for peacefully resolving territorial disputes.[4] However, claiming parties may compromise in situations in which military security issues are not significant or the military support of the target or other states is relevant to disputes with other agents.[5]

Cases such as the South China Sea clearly illustrate how military power is relevant to the initiation and escalation of territorial disputes.[6] Additionally, the bilateral relationship between China and India in light of the Himalayan territorial dispute indicates that a balance of military power between the claimants could foster a stalemate.[7]

Prior gain of territory

Several ongoing territorial disputes have to do with a party disputing colonial territories of the state in question. In cases where a gain of territory is at the expense of a previous settlement or military victory, the challenger may support its claim based on decolonization.[8]

Common alliance

Military alliances between different agents that are parties in a potential territorial dispute seem to lower the chance of an actual dispute.[9]

Once initiated, alliances have limited deterrent value in the escalation of the dispute.[10] Conversely, the escalation of a dispute is strongly influenced by the involvement of the challenger in conflicts with other states.[11] In fact, an agent involved in conflicts with other states is more likely to compromise.[12] Similarly, in cases in which the claiming agent and the target are allies, the chances for compromise are higher.[13]

Previous settlement

In cases in which the agents had agreed to settle the border dispute with an agreement the chances for a territorial dispute are low even though some of the circumstances, such as relative military capabilities or regimes and leaders, may have changed.[14] Some areas around the world have moved from conflict to more peaceful understanding among bordering states. For example, South America, Western Europe and the Middle East show different levels of peace processes during the last century.[15] By the end of 1980s most of the South American states had peacefully resolved their differences.[16]

However, in light of previous settlements, it is important to differentiate between positive and negative peace. The former implies that the use of force between the agents is very unlikely while the latter includes instances in which force may still be used although a peaceful arrangement has been reached.[17]

Previous post:

Next theme:

Regional context.

Author of:

Territorial Disputes and State Sovereignty. International Law and Politics (London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2020).

Sovereignty Conflicts and International Law and Politics: A Distributive Justice Issue (London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2017).

Wednesday 02nd June 2021

Dr Jorge Emilio Núñez

Twitter: @DrJorge_World

[1] For an in-depth analysis of the relationship between territorial disputes and the military see David B. Carter, “The Strategy of Territorial Conflict,” in American Journal of Political Science 54:4 (2010), 969-987.

[2] Paul K. Huth, Standing Your Ground. Territorial Disputes and International Conflict, 85.

[3] Ibid., 114-118.

[4] Ibid., 155.

[5] Ibid., 159.

[6] M. Taylor Fravel, “Power Shifts and Escalation: Explaining China’s Use of Force in Territorial Disputes,” in International Security 32:3 (2007-2008), 44-83; Timothy R. Heath, “Dispute Control: China Recalibrates Use of Military Force to Support Security Policy’s Expanding Focus,” in The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies 43:1-2 (2018), 33-77.

[7] Katherine Richards, “China–India: An Analysis of the Himalayan Territorial Dispute,” in Australian Defence College, Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies (2015), available at, accessed 25 May, 2019.

[8] Paul K. Huth, Standing Your Ground. Territorial Disputes and International Conflict, 88.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 118-119.

[11] Ibid., 119.

[12] Ibid., 157.

[13] Ibid., 160.

[14] Ibid., 90-91.

[15] Benjamin Miller, “When and How Regions Become Peaceful: Potential Theoretical Pathways to Peace,” in International Studies Review 7:2 (2005): 229-267.

[16] Jorge Mario Battaglino, “The Coexistence of Peace and Conflict in South America: Toward a New Conceptualization of Types of Peace,” in Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional 55:2 (2012): 131-151.

[17] Helevi J. Holsti, The State, war and the State of War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, 157-158; Arie M. Kacowicz, Zones of Peace in the Third World: South America and West Africa in Comparative Perspective. Albany: State of New York Press, 1998, 8-11; and many others. Battaglino includes zones of “hybrid” peace: areas with a) unresolved disputes that may become militarized, b) democracies that maintain relationships with neighbour states, and c) regional legal frameworks that may help resolve a dispute in a peaceful manner. See Jorge Mario Battaglino, “The Coexistence of Peace and Conflict in South America: Toward a New Conceptualization of Types of Peace,” in Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional 55:2 (2012): 131-151, 133 and 142-145.

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