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On Territorial Disputes

No, the red dots are not alien landing sites nor are they earthquake hot spots. They represent some of the territorial disputes unresolved today in Asia and North America.

Between Canada and the United States, there are officially seven territories under dispute. 1 The United States have other disputes, though not indicated above, for example with Mexico and Cuba.

Some of the key disputes in East Asia are: Kuril Islands between Russia and Japan; Dokdo or Takeshima between South Korea and Japan; Diaoyu Dao or Senkaku between China, Taiwan, and Japan; and islands in the South China Sea claimed by many.

If we plot all the disputes between all countries, the entire map would be lit with red dots. In reality, territorial disputes are the norm rather the exception.

So, what sets apart United States’ territorial disputes from that of China’s? In this article, I would like to offer some perspectives.

In the last few decades, China has worked earnestly with her neighbors to fully demarcate their borders. China’s relationship is the most complex in this regard, because she borders 14 countries, more than any nation on this planet. Quite remarkable, really, China has concluded demarcation with almost all, including Russia and Vietnam.

On February 23, 2009, China and Vietnam celebrated their agreement with a ceremony held at the Youyiguan, or Friendship Gate, an ancient landmark that existed for more than 2000 years. 2

From the land border perspective, India is the last remaining country where negotiations are still ongoing.

Despite that trend, the Western press have always cast doubt on China’s ability to tackle such issue. The Wall Street Journal reported recently:

India and China’s agreement Tuesday to set up a mechanism to settle border disputes is unlikely to help lead to a broader pact over the disputed frontier, analysts say. 3

How much longer China and India continue to wrestle remains to be seen. In my opinion, the trend is definitely positive.

The remaining disputes where China is party to are mostly in the sea.

Looking at the U.S.-Canada disputes, one should note how “friendly” the two countries are towards each another. Despite that, why aren’t their disputes settled yet? Furthermore, the United States is overwhelmingly stronger, so sheer might has not expedited a resolution either.

In China and India’s case it was in fact an arbitrary mess created by the British imperialists who withdrew and left the McMahon Line that separated the two countries. If not for that, perhaps India and China would not have gone to war over the border to begin with. The two civilizations have in fact lived next to each other for thousands of years without fighting.

One may then raise, what about Tibet and Taiwan? Those are disputes too, aren’t they? The Western media cleverly creates an impression of many disputes and use that simplistic reason to insinuate a ‘bad’ China:

China and its neighbors have long been involved in a number of border disputes, many of them dating back to the end of World War II or the civil war that followed. Asserting Chinese sovereignty over borderlands in contention — everywhere from Tibet to Taiwan to the South China Sea — has long been the top priority for Chinese nationalists, an obsession that overrides all other concerns. 4

The above emphasis is mine. When the NYT said, “obsession that overrides all other concerns,” it is in fact false. China has in fact resolved almost all her borderland disputes. What country would not want to bring peace to their borders? It, instead, should applaud what China has achieved in the last few decades. Furthermore, despite Japanese leaders worshiping war criminals at the Yasukuni Shrine and whitewashing atrocities (through history text books and media), China nevertheless seeks normalization. China also has a policy to resolve these disputes through dialog.

Even for Tibet and Taiwan, they are issues today because of direct intervention by the United States. The TGIE (Tibetan Government in Exile) was a result of a CIA-backed uprising but failed because the Dalai Lama could not muster enough popular support. The ethnic Tibetan populace did not want to support the Dalai Lama’s theocracy. The uprising was easily put down, and the Dalai Lama and the TGIE escaped to India in 1959. To this day, the Dalai Lama and the TGIE receive financial support from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an arm of the U.S. government with the sole purpose of instigating and supporting political oppositions abroad. TGIE’s separatist cause is also propped up in the West by Western media propaganda.

Taiwan was a result of the U.S. supporting the Nationalist and Mao unable to to fully defeat that faction on the island in the civil war.

In order to put Tibet and Taiwan in proper context, we must turn to the United States and examine separatist movements within her borders. The following is a current list of separatist movements in the United States 5:

Secessionist movements
Autonomist movements

Theoretically (and I personally don’t espouse this), if the United States become a much weaker nation, and if a very powerful foreign country behaves in the same way as America has been, then any of these separatist movements could be armed, funded, and politically supported to break away. Think of the Libyan opposition helped by NATO bombing Qaddafi; they also receive arms and political aid from Western countries.

One might ask how is it possible those separatist movements on the list could become big enough? The simple answer is time. Once a backed group becomes violent, blood feud is inevitable. Once that begins, the cycle of violence will eventually fully polarize the population.

Note the above list does not even include Hawaii. There aren’t too many Native Americans left, but looking at how the colonial masters in the last couple of centuries divided and conquered, they can be exploited too. A dominant Mexico against a much weaker United States may start to unwind the entire western region.

Logically, a very weak United States with a super powerful meddler could undermine completely this whole nation. I am personally against it simply because it would create untold human suffering. It would open new chapters of blood feud which is extremely difficult to stem.

For this reason, we all must think in long term about territorial disputes.

Strong states, all states, must work towards an international system where disputes are encouraged to end peacefully that last. Any step by a powerful state to undermine disputing parties efforts to reconcile must be shunted.

If any dispute is resolved unfairly, the aggrieved party will forever look for a more opportune future time to revisit the issue.


  1. Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_territorial_disputes
  2. Xinhua, “China-Vietnam border demarcation finished”, February 23, 2009, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2009-02/23/content_7503495.htm
  3. The Wall Street Journal, “Analysts: India, China Pact Won’t Solve Conflict,” January 17, 2012, http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2012/01/17/analysts-india-china-pact-wont-solve-conflict/
  4. The New York Times, “China’s Territorial Disputes,” September 27, 2010, http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/china/territorial-disputes/index.html
  5. Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_active_separatist_movements_in_North_America
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  1. zack
    March 26th, 2012 at 13:00 | #1

    the conceit of anglo americans is that the sun will never set on the american empire, thus they do not need to fear such piffling ‘secessionist movements’.

    let us hope that time proves them wrong

  2. jxie
    March 26th, 2012 at 15:37 | #2

    yinyang, nice post.

    Between 1846 and 1848, Mexico and the US fought a war. After Mexico lost the war, Mexico ceded a large piece of land including California to the US.

    Since then, 118 million ounces of gold has been produced in California, mostly in the 19th century. In 1900, a ounce of gold was worth $21, so the total gold produced in California alone was worth $2.48 billion (in 1900 gold dollar). To put this in context, in 1900, the Mexican GDP according to Montevideo-Oxford Latin American Economic History Database, was 1.317 billion gold peso, which was about $660 million gold dollar. In other words, the gold alone in California alone Mexico lost to the US, was worth near 4 times of the Mexican 1900 GDP. You don’t need a vivid imagination to figure out what the gold would have done to Mexico and the Mexicans, had they not lost the war. On the other hand, the gold from California (and later from Alaska) helped fund the American industrialization after the Civil War.

  3. Naqshbandiyya
    March 26th, 2012 at 16:56 | #3

    Why pick the rather puny American secessionist movements? A better point of reference would be groups like the ETA and the IRA, scary minority nationalist movements in Europe that more closely parallel the terrorism in Tibet and Xinjiang.

  4. zack
    March 26th, 2012 at 20:27 | #4

    the only thing stopping these secessionist movements in the US is close monitoring by the FBI (ie, the Ameican secret police), and the DHS, as well as subversion tactics which the CIA/FBI were responsible for during the anti vietnam protests.

    Domestic Terrorism could easily translate into secessionist groups given the right circumstances, or even active revolution.

  5. March 26th, 2012 at 23:24 | #5

    This is where I think American leaders can use more long term thinking. Since America is the dominant power, she has the influence to make the world better. It’s lost opportunity.

    Thanks. I had no idea how much Mexico had truly lost. Thanks for laying that out for us. Since I live in California, I am ambivalent about illegal immigrants and their children attending California public schools. Some days I feel it is a sort of affirmative action for what was taken from them. But in a climate where schools are getting less, many American citizens are resentful of illegal immigrant children getting a free education.

    Fair criticism.

    My personal hope is that all people of the planet eventually reconcile – and live next to each other in harmony.

    For that, I hope IRA find a way to have permanent peace with Britain.

    If Britain is smart, it would support harmony for all regions of China too.

  6. March 27th, 2012 at 15:29 | #6

    I really enjoyed reading this blog. It reminded me of something I saw in HI at a university campus there. I saw a poster on the bulletin board advertising for the local chapter of some local pro-Tibet independence group (I think it was SFT). It partially had the slogan “Free Tibet” on it. Someone (presumably Hawaiian) came by and scratched out the “Tibet” part and rewrote “Hawaii!” in its place.

    There are really two issues you have identified however. One is with territorial disputes and the other is with independence movement. These are quite different. An independence movement presupposes that one territory is a part of another but maintains that it should be independent. While a territorial disputes does not maintain that one territory is a part of another but that it belongs to one nation’s territory.

    Many in the Tibet independence movement often confuse the distinction and make contradictory claims. When one says that “Tibet should be independent” one is implicitly acknowledging that Tibet is now a part of China but that it ought to be independent in the future. When one says that Tibet is “illegally occupied” or something similar, one is saying that Tibet is now NOT a part of China. Sometimes pro-Tibet groups makes both claims not realizing that they are saying contradictory things.

    Yes, China can support many of the independence movements you have listed out of spite for the west with financing, propaganda, logistics, etc but I do not believe the Chinese leadership are as petty and insidious as their western counter parts. They won’t use other people as pawns to further their own political ends. What good will it bring to support these independence movements but sowing the seeds for strive and violence? It’s more important to focus on issues that actually affect people’s lives like human rights, etc for those disenfranchised groups.

  7. March 27th, 2012 at 16:20 | #7


    Indeed. China’s claim to the Tibet region is infinitely strong compared to the U.S. claim over the Hawaiian islands. Yet, we don’t hear Western media propaganda to make sure Hawaii remains purely Hawaiian in blood.

    The Western media treatment of the Tibet issue is pure propaganda against the Chinese.

    This propaganda is crafty too, because their emotive language is to sow hatred between ethnic Tibetans and other Chinese.

    Agreed with your take that the Chinese government doesn’t play this petty game. But I also think the trend is not guaranteed. A very strong China in the future may get sick of it and decide to retaliate. But I’d like to think a wiser China then would instead find a way to lead the world in enhancing the U.N. or some other international body such that fomenting hatred between peoples is crime against humanity.

    Good point in your distinction between territorial disputes vs. independence. Though I think they are often conflated.

    A dilapidated United States could on its own cause relatively rich states like California to not want to shoulder the rest of the country and hence want to break away – likely made stronger if Hispanic population becomes the majority.

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