Modern Conquest

Land Grabs Are on the Rise

Surankote, 137 miles northwest of Jammu, November 17, 2008. Amit Gupta / Reuters

Territorial conquest is a regular feature of war. But it is generally accepted that globalization and growing economic interconnectedness has stitched the world together in such a way that fighting each other for land is no longer pragmatic. Then in 2014, Russia stunned the world by annexing Crimea, triggering a civil war in Ukraine and enraging Western nations, which have since slammed Moscow with a number of sanctions. China, too, has irked its southeastern neighbors with its incessant incursions into their territorial waters in the South China Sea. Dan Altman, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center, has collected data on every territorial grab, however small, since 1918. In his working paper, "Land Grabs: Causes, Consequences, and the Evolution of Territorial Conquest," he found that aggressive conquests have indeed declined. But land grabs, which occur "when a country deploys its military to occupy and establish control over a disputed piece of territory," are on the rise. Snatching lands with murky or disputed borders is particularly trendy. Although this might appear alarming, the good news is that aggressors often find that these "gray areas" are not worth going to war over.

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