In This Review

Strong Borders, Secure Nation: Cooperation and Conflict in China's Territorial Disputes
Strong Borders, Secure Nation: Cooperation and Conflict in China's Territorial Disputes
By M. Taylor Fravel
408 pp, Princeton University Press, 2008

China's communist government inherited territorial disputes with all of China's 14 land neighbors and six sea neighbors. It has also had to manage what Fravel calls three "homeland disputes," involving Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan. Piecing together much hard-to-find information, he shows that in 17 of these 23 conflicts, Beijing has offered concessions, abandoning claims to over 1.3 million square miles of land. In the other six disputes, Beijing has used force. Fravel argues that both types of behavior can be explained by security concerns. Provided the land at stake was not essential for defensive purposes, China offered concessions at times when it needed to break out of diplomatic isolation or gain recognition of its control over domestic ethnic minorities. In the 1990s, for example, Beijing pursued talks and sometimes reached final settlements with Russia (in order to consolidate a strategic partnership), Vietnam (to improve relations with Southeast Asia), India (to gain its acceptance of Chinese control of Tibet), and some Central Asian states (to get their cooperation against separatists in Xinjiang). But if the disputed land was valuable, Beijing was liable to put troops in motion when it saw the security environment growing more threatening: this logic explains the border conflicts with India in 1962 and the Soviet Union in the late 1960s and early 1970s, among others. Fravel's is an elegant argument that works well to explain Chinese behavior and holds promise for application elsewhere. Although six territorial disputes remain unresolved, including the dangerous Taiwan situation, on the whole, China emerges from this account as a stability-seeking, rather than an expansionist, power.