China’s Use of Force in Territorial Disputes: Discontinuities Between Land and Sea

May 26, 2023

By Benjamin Jebb


When does China use force to settle territorial disputes? This paper leverages data from the Correlates of War project and Stanford’s Mapping Interstate Territorial Conflict repository to demonstrate that China takes different approaches to settling terrestrial and sea-based disputes. While China has tacitly accepted the territorial status quo and generally used force only after a rival challenged extant terrestrial boundaries, it has initiated revisions to the territorial status quo in the maritime domain. This paper contends that China takes different approaches to its terrestrial disagreements and maritime disputes due to the Chinese Communist Party’s internal risk calculus. While land-based disputes can stoke unmanageable levels of escalation, factors specific to the maritime domain are more likely to keep militarized incidents contained.


When does China decide to use force in its territorial disputes? This question has grown increasingly salient due to China’s aggressive island reclamation efforts in the Western Pacific, and as its relative power continues to grow, policymakers around the globe fear that Chinese territorial aggrandizement could escalate to war (Green and Talmadge 2022). This trepidation is well grounded in political science. Scholars like Robert Gilpin have consistently shown that rapid domestic growth incentivizes states to expand their geopolitical ambitions, often by revising the territorial status quo in their respective backyards (Gilpin 2022). John Vasquez echoes this sentiment by demonstrating that most interstate wars in the post-Westphalian era have been fought between contiguous neighbors over questions of territorial sovereignty (Vasquez 1995). There are multiple reasons for this phenomenon. In addition to the ideational value associated with many land disputes, territorial conquests are the primary means by which most states enhanced their material wealth, international standing, and national security (ibid). These insights are particularly relevant for China, which shares a land border of approximately 22,000 kilometers with fourteen other countries, and is currently locked in at least 17 territorial disputes along its frontier lands and in the East and South China Seas (Hongyi 2009).

However, China’s decision to use (or not use) force to settle territorial disputes does not fit a clearcut pattern. In many instances, China has conceded generous territorial concessions to rival claimants. In the mid 1990s for example, China granted over 30,000 square kilometers of disputed land to the former Soviet satellite states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan (Fravel 2005). Conversely, China has risked military escalation and even nuclear war over strategically insignificant tracts of land, as it did in 1969 when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ambushed Soviet border patrols along the frozen banks of the Ussuri River (Kissinger 2012). China’s behavior regarding its claims, therefore, presents an interesting puzzle. In contradiction to realist orthodoxy, which assumes that great powers are destined to use their might to achieve revisionist ambitions, China has consistently refrained from using its relative strength to settle boundary issues with weaker claimants (Mearsheimer 2014). Conversely, it has also risked escalation by launching ill-fated military ventures against powerful rivals like India and Russia. What explains this strategic calculus, and why has China vacillated between concession and preemption vis-à-vis its territorial disagreements?

This paper will argue that there is a distinct difference between China’s approach to territorial disagreements with Taiwan and its contiguous neighbors on the one hand, and the way it handles its maritime disputes on the other hand. In the case of the former, China usually accepts existing territorial demarcations and chooses not to settle questions of national sovereignty with military force unless its adversary instigates an attempt to revise extant boundary lines (Fravel 2007). [1] Conversely, China takes an opposite approach to its maritime disagreements: in the sea domain, China often seeks windows of opportunity to strengthen its claims over contested islands by initiating a challenge to the status quo (Chubb 2021).

The reason for this discontinuity has to do with the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) internal risk calculus. Given China’s history of unending threats to its frontier lands at the hands of nomadic steppe peoples in the north and west, fierce Annam (Vietnamese) warlords to the south, and Western imperial powers to its east, China has traditionally been hesitant to resolve land-based territorial crises by force due to fears that its belligerence could provoke unity between its adversaries (Kissinger 2012). In essence, since contiguous border disputes and the issue of Taiwan are more likely to push Beijing’s rivals into a balancing coalition than competition over maritime claims, Beijing has normally elected for a more cautious approach to its land-based disagreements (Vasquez 1995). And despite the CCP’s rhetoric about the injustices imposed on China by a series of “unequal treaties” from the nineteenth-century, China’s firm desire to maintain relative stability on its borders has led it to accept its post-1949 boundaries (Segal 1981). Thus, with the exception of Tibet, which Mao Zedong and his successors viewed as an entirely domestic matter, China has largely refrained from using force to preemptively incorporate land from contiguous neighbors and Taiwan (Sperling 2004). [2]

China’s maritime disputes, however, present a different risk calculation. While sea-lines of communication in the East and South China Seas are important for securing China’s energy imports, disputes over contested maritime terrain are unlikely to blossom into full blown military conflicts that threaten the CCP’s security directly (Vasquez 1995). This is due to three reasons: first, non-contiguous disputes are unlikely to escalate into major wars (ibid). [3] As Paul Diehl has shown in a major study of interstate rivalries from 1816-1980, nearly 25 percent of disputes between contiguous rival states escalated to war, as opposed to only 2 percent of non-contiguous disputes (Diehl 1985). Since China’s rival claimants in the maritime domain are non-contiguous neighbors (with the exception of Vietnam), it can be relatively assured that its great power adventurism within its near seas will not lead to a destabilizing conflict. Second, most wars are dyadic and rarely expand beyond four parties. In an analysis of all major wars between the 15th and 20th centuries, for example, statistician Lewis Fry Richardson demonstrated that over half were between country pairs, 28 involved just three parties, and approximately 12 had just three against one (Richardson 1975). In other words, as the number of parties involved in a given dispute increases, the likelihood that a specific dispute escalates to war decreases. Since China’s maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas involve six different parties, all of whom have overlapping territorial claims, it can be confident that its maritime quarrels will remain relatively contained (Congressional Research Service 2022).

Finally, the complex nature and legalistic ambiguities germane to China’s maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas also deters third-party-intervention. Great powers like the United States are loath to wade into grievance-laden debates over competing claims for uninhabited atolls, and America takes no position on most sovereignty questions in littoral Southeast Asia (Poling 2022). In the aftermath of the 2012 Scarborough Shoal imbroglio between the Philippines and China, for example, U.S. President Barack Obama referred to the incident as a “dispute [over] a few rocks,” and refused to commit the United States to the defense of its longtime ally over a crisis in the South China Sea (Strangio 2020).

The below analysis opens with a broad survey of existing theories regarding China’s decision to use force over its territorial disputes. This will be followed by a discussion of the paper’s research design, which uses a mix of qualitative methods and data from the Correlates of War (COW) and Stanford’s Mapping Interstate Territorial Conflict (MITC) repository. Case studies will then illustrate that China treats land-based and maritime boundaries differently. They will show that since 1949, China has: (1) tacitly accepted the territorial status quo with respect to its boundaries; (2) used force on its land borders (and with Taiwan) only after rival claimant states initiated an attempt to revise existing boundaries; and (3) initiated force opportunistically with respect to its maritime territorial claims. This paper will conclude with several implications for U.S. policy and suggestions for how the United States can optimize security force assistance and overseas deployments to achieve its primary aim in Asia: to preserve freedom and peace in the Indo-Pacific (Executive Office of the President 2022).

Past Explanations for China’s Use of Force in Territorial Disputes

Several explanations have been given to explain when and why states elect to use force to settle territorial disputes. Jessica Weeks finds that in “personalist” autocracies where institutional constraints on the arbitrary use of authority are noticeably absent, individualistic explanations for state behavior are quite compelling (Weeks 2012). The question of individual agency is particularly relevant to China because the CCP has consistently eschewed collective leadership in favor of personalistic dictatorships (Shirk 2018). For those who view personality as central to China’s foreign affairs, differences in China’s strategy toward its neighbors can largely be attributed to the personal idiosyncrasies of leaders like Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Xi Jinping.

However, as Andrew Chubb has observed, relying on an individualist mode of analysis to explain China’s use (or nonuse) of aggression over its territorial disputes proves challenging at best (Chubb 2021). Not only is it difficult to get inside the mind of a Party-state leader, but successive CCP leaders have also approached China’s many territorial disputes with inconsistent policies. While Mao, for example, certainly had no qualms with launching bloody wars, he also imposed precautionary measures in those conflicts to limit Chinese involvement and mitigate the risks of escalation (Whiting 2001). Furthermore, Mao elected to negotiate and settle multiple border disputes peacefully, particularly during the early 1960s (Fravel 2005). Conversely, the supposedly peaceful days of Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” period in the post-Mao years were far from tranquil. After all, it was Deng who initiated China’s last true war in 1979 against its erstwhile communist ally Hanoi (Heath et al. 2921). His successors, Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin, and Xi Jinping, as Andrew Chubb has demonstrated, also presided over an inconsistent posture regarding the use of force with respect to Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea (Chubb 2021).

Offensive realists offer structural explanations for China’s use of force. More specifically, they maintain that there is a direct correlation between a state’s relative material strength and its willingness to use force, i.e., the more power a state accumulates, the more likely it is to use coercion to achieve its interests. Realists like John Mearsheimer assert that the basic anarchic arrangement of world politics normally precludes cooperation over issues like border disputes, and as China continues to grow economically and militarily, it will undoubtedly attempt to dominate the Indo-Pacific to achieve its security interests (Mearsheimer 2020).

Nonetheless, while the logic that undergirds offensive realism is compelling, the fact remains that China has consistently refrained from using its military superiority to settle boundary disagreements (Fravel 2007). An empirical analysis of China’s militarized interstate disputes (MIDs) from 1979-2010 by Jun Xiang and Christopher Primiano, for example, offers convincing evidence that China’s rapid growth in GDP, military spending, and Composite Index of National Capability (CINC) score has not corresponded with a higher probability of militarized conflicts between China and its neighbors (Xiang et al. 2015). Furthermore, realism has little to stay about policy differences between the land and sea domains. Power is power, and offensive realists like Mearsheimer look at aggregate strength and assume that as a country’s naval capacity increases, it should be more willing to use its burgeoning maritime supremacy to achieve its interests. However, China’s assertiveness at sea began in the early 1970s when the PLA Navy (PLAN) was in a state of utter disrepair due to the internal ravages of the Cultural Revolution (Yoshihara 2016). In fact, the PLAN initiated its largest naval battles in the South China Sea well before the exigencies of the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis spurred China to develop a truly modern navy, which suggests that factors other than hard power realities affected the internal decisions of CCP elites (Office of Naval Intelligence 2009). Consequently, while realism does offer important insights regarding interstate relations, it does not tender a causal mechanism that can explain why China negotiates peaceful resolutions to many of its land disputes but chooses to initiate revisionism at sea.

Constructivists emphasize the importance of norms and collective identities in Beijing’s foreign policymaking process (Wendt 1992). For China, which suffered egregious injustices at the hands of external invaders who carved up Imperial China with impunity in the late nineteenth century, the issue of Taiwan and its land borders should supersede its maritime claims in national importance. Indeed, as Zheng Wang and M. Taylor Fravel point out, a strictly constructivist reading of history would emphasize the legacy of China’s “unequal treaties” and largely discount the possibility of territorial compromise altogether (Wang 2008 and Fravel 2005). At the very least, China’s history with imperial powers should make negotiations over littoral islands more palatable than compromises regarding its terrestrial territory. This is because top Party-state officials have consistently tied national boundaries and Taiwanese reunification to the CCP’s legitimacy, while China’s “nine dash line” claim is a relatively recent assertion (Mastro 2021 and Constitutional Rights Foundation 2018). After seizing power in 1949, for example, Mao claimed absolute authority over the China’s frontier, and remained implacable in his belief that breakaway regions like Taiwan, Tibet, Mongolia, Xinjiang, Himalayan border areas, and the eastern edge of Burma were Chinese lands (Kissinger 2012). Over the ensuing decades, CCP leaders regularly insisted that China should eschew accommodation for a policy of belligerence vis-à-vis the territories it lost during the twilight of the Qin dynasty (ibid). By contrast, China did not officially promulgate its “nine dash line” claim at the United Nations until 2009 (Constitutional Rights Foundation 2018).

However, despite the significance of China’s collective memory regarding its territorial dismemberment, which constructivists like Zheng Wang identify as paramount in contemporary Chinese political culture, it has implicitly accepted the boundary lines imposed by its “unequal treaties,” especially on its outlying border regions (Wang 2008 and Segal 1981). In many instances, China even conceded large swaths of land to its neighbors in exchange for international cooperation, even as it has refused to compromise over submerged reefs in the East and South China Seas (Fravel 2005). In sum, while national narratives and cultural identities may play a role in a state’s foreign policy, constructivism does not necessarily predict when and why China will acquiesce in some disputes while escalating to violence in others.

The role of domestic politics offers a fourth explanation for China’s use of force in its territorial disagreements. According to diversionary war theory, militarized crises do not necessarily materialize due to a clash of interests between opposing states. Rather, political leaders often foment international crises to both divert the public’s attention away from internal discontent and to galvanize support for domestic policies through a “rally around the flag effect” (Tir 2010). In the case of China, for example, some researchers have claimed that Mao’s decision to stoke a crisis over Taiwan in 1958 was caused by the need to mobilize domestic support for the self-strengthening reforms of the Great Leap Forward (Christensen 1997). Contemporary scholarship finds this explanation compelling. Paul Huth finds a strong correlation between a state’s willingness to use force to settle a boundary dispute and the expected political benefits of increased popular support, particularly when land grabs were aimed at achieving national unification or the recovery of lost territory (Huth 1996). Accordingly, disputes like the China-Taiwan coastal island clashes (1950-54), the First Sino-Indian War (1962), and the Paracels Battle (1974) can be explained by parallel upheavals in China’s domestic situation like the initial stages of state formation (1949-1954), the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) (BBC News 2019).

Fravel reaches an alternative domestic explanation. Rather than citing diversionary war theory as the reason for Chinese actions over boundary disputes, Fravel contends that domestic upheavals can actually create the conditions for international cooperation. In essence, he argues that disruptions to internal tranquility caused by ethnic unrest in Tibet and Western China actually spurred CCP leaders to trade territory for assistance in countering potential internal sources of insecurity (Fravel 2005). In 1960, for example, Beijing reached a boundary agreement with Kathmandu in exchange for the right to conduct limited military operations against Tibetan rebels seeking refuge in Nepalese territory (Garver 2001). In the early 1990s, China granted significant territorial dispensations to newly minted Central Asian states with the explicit understanding that they would deny external support for Uyghur separatists living in Xinjiang (Fravel 2005).

These domestic explanations of Chinese foreign policy offer important insights into China’s rationale for negotiating vice using force over territorial disagreements. However, they do not provide an overarching theory that explains when China might resort to military action on its periphery or at sea. China used force over territorial disagreements in times of domestic tumult (e.g. the 1962 Sino-Indian War during the Great Leap Forward, the 1969 Zhenbao ambush during the Cultural Revolution, etc.) and during times of relative domestic tranquility (e.g. the 1987 occupation of Sumdurong Chu, the 1988 South Johnson Reef Battle with Vietnam, the 1995-96 Taiwan Straits Crisis, etc.). This suggests that many periods of domestic strife did not coincide with a manufactured crisis that required the diversionary use of force. Additionally, China has not always granted land concessions in exchange for transnational cooperation in combating internal threats to stability from insurgents (e.g., in the aftermath of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, China continued to expand into Aksai Chin, provoking India in the process) (University of Central Arkansas 2022). Still, while internal politics seems to have played a role in Beijing’s foreign affairs, significant deviations from the expectations associated with diversionary war theory and Fravel’s “divisionary peace” theory warrant further investigation.

A Theory of Territorial Bargaining

Grand international relations theories may offer a lens for examining macrohistorical trends in interstate relations, but they do not provide a construct for understanding how states haggle over specific territorial disputes. In his piece Power Shifts and Escalation: Explaining China’s Use of Force in Territorial Disputes, however, Fravel develops a theory of territorial negotiation anchored in Preventive War Theory. His “negative bargaining power” framework explains (1) how states perceive their leverage over a contested territory and (2) why states might initiate conflicts over territorial disputes. Fravel identifies a state’s “bargaining power” as its ability to secure a favorable resolution over a contested tract of territory (Fravel 2007). He then explains that states locked in enduring land disagreements often jockey for position to achieve an advantageous bargaining situation because as a given state’s relative bargaining position strengthens, that state can be more confident about achieving a favorable negotiated settlement in the future. Conversely, when a state’s relative bargaining position declines, the leaders of that country will be more pessimistic about the prospect for an advantageous diplomatic outcome (ibid).

According to Fravel, bargaining power is a function of two constituent parts: the local balance of military power and the strength of a state’s political claim over a given region (ibid). The military component is important because in many disputes, the amount of land held by each side is fixed, and the primary means by which one side can wrest control of terrain from the other is through military force (ibid). Therefore, a state can bolster its bargaining position by increasing the local balance of force in its favor via deploying troops, building garrisons, acquiring new military capabilities via foreign arms transfers or indigenous innovation, and preemptively occupying land in the vicinity of the disputed region. The other component of bargaining power, i.e. political entitlement to a given territory, can be strengthened in various ways as well. These include taking administrative actions that integrate contested lands under a state’s domestic authority, developing infrastructure projects that augment the state’s physical presence in a region, and holding makeshift elections to increase the legitimacy of the state’s claim (ibid).

Finally, while most states maintain an uneasy equilibrium along disputed borders, if one side drastically increases its bargaining power by deploying troops en masse or placing a region under its domestic supervision, the other side experiences a de facto negative shift in bargaining power (ibid). And when states experience a negative shift in bargaining power, they are incentivized to use force in the short-term to maintain their claims. Fravel’s insight vis-à-vis interstate bargaining offers a framework for analyzing territorial disagreements and will be utilized later on in this paper.

Research Design

This paper will build on the progress of authors like Chubb and Fravel by using qualitative methods and data from the Correlates of War (COW) project and Stanford’s Mapping Interstate Territorial Conflict (MITC) repository to identify the conditions associated with China’s decision to use (or not use) force with respect to its territory disputes. This article will show that China has since 1949: (1) implicitly accepted the territorial lines bequeathed to it by the Age of Imperialism; (2) used violence in territorial disputes only after a rival state tries to revise the status quo; and (3) initiated force opportunistically with respect to its maritime claims.

This paper analyzes China’s major territorial disputes from 1949-2012 using datasets from COW and MITC. The COW dataset contains an extensive list of China’s militarized interstate disputes (MIDs) as well as details about who was involved in each MID and the level of violence achieved in each MID. The MITC database is used to identify all of China’s land-based and maritime territorial disagreements since the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 (Schultz 2019). This piece considers Taiwan to be a special case in that it is more similar to China’s other land-based disputes than its maritime ones for geographical reasons. Although Taiwan is separated from China by the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan’s outlying isles are located just under two miles from mainland China at its narrowest point (Kissinger 2012). So, while the outlying Taiwanese islands of Quemoy, Matsu, and the Dachens do not share a contiguous land border with China, they are more geographically similar to the northeastern Sino-Russian land border (which is demarcated by a 557-mile long river) than to the Philippines, which is separated from mainland China by over 400 miles of sea. Additionally, Taiwan’s far-flung islands are well within the traditional artillery range of the PLA, which has historically made them a frequent target of antagonistic military maneuvers, making Taiwan’s northern islands akin to the contested and oft-militarized Himalayan border region that separates India and China (ibid). [4]

After identifying China’s territorial disputes, this paper then uses information from the COW’s Dyadic Militarized Interstate Disputes dataset (version 4.02) to determine where and when China initiated the use of force regarding its territorial disagreements (Maoz et al. 2018). To meet the threshold for the use of force, however, MIDs are required to meet the following conditions: the highest military action (HIACT) for a given MID must be greater than or equal to “14” (“14” represents a “Border Violation”), or the highest level of hostility (HIHOST) must be greater than or equal to “3” (“3” represents a “show of force”). Additionally, to ensure that either China or its territorial rivals were the initiating parties in a dyadic MID, rather than joiners, the dummy variable originator (ORIGNA) must equal “1.” Finally, to ensure that the MIDs in question were primarily about disputed territory, MIDs that were initiated due to differences in policy, regime/government, or other were removed from analysis. [5] This eliminated military actions that were not expressly about territorial issues, such as China’s mass mobilization of troops on the Sino-Indian border during the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War to place additional pressure on an Indian government (Garver 2001).

After employing these coding rules, qualitative research was conducted on each individual MID to determine what country initiated a change to the dyadic territorial status quo. Fravel’s “negative bargaining power” framework was used to better conceptualize how each belligerent (either China or its adversary) challenged the status quo and why. For example, even though Chinese troops were mobilized along the MacMahon Line in India’s northeast border in the mid 1980’s, it was in response to two provocations made by India: the first was China’s discovery that India had established a seasonal outpost in previously unoccupied territory near the Sumdurong Chu valley in 1985 (Balazs 2021). Then, in December 1986, the Indian Parliament passed an act that upgraded the Arunachal Central Autonomous Administrative Region to a fully-fledged Indian state, which would henceforth be known as Arunachal Pradesh (Fravel 2005). According to Fravel’s framework, India’s actions clearly strengthened its bargaining power by building up its military infrastructure in vicinity of contested terrain and by unilaterally subsuming the disputed territory under India’s dominion.

Of note, while Fravel’s negative bargaining framework mainly applies to land-based disagreements, it pertains to the maritime domain as well, albeit with two important caveats. First, unlike China’s many land-based disagreements, territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas are not dyadic: they have multiple claimants, each with their own overlapping territorial assertions (Fravel 2011). This situation creates a convoluted web of intersecting interests between multiple actors, making it more difficult for all parties involved to form a balancing coalition against China. The second stipulation has to do with maritime norms and international law. Unlike land-based disputes, in which lines of actual control keep each player’s forces relatively discrete, disputed maritime zones are subject to overlapping layers of control (Chubb 2021). As a result, administrative presence, which refers to all the state-owned assets located in a disputed area, is an important measure of the validity of a state’s maritime claim under international law (ibid). This dynamic incentivizes states to secure footholds on disputed marine features and flood them with everything from ships and vehicles to research facilities and scientific equipment. In summary, terrestrial and maritime bargaining positions are similar in nature, but the complexities of the marine environment and the legal regime that governs international waters reduce the requirements needed for a state to enhance its bargaining power over a disputed island.

To track shifts in each claimant’s relative bargaining power, this paper evaluates primary and secondary sources for evidence of changes in the local balance of forces and the political strength of a state’s territorial claim. For land-based disagreements, a state is coded as the initiator when it was the first to either: (1) deploy a battalion-sized element (or larger) to the border; (2) erect military infrastructure around a disputed area; (3) acquire new power-projection capabilities that could bolster its bargaining position over a specific piece of territory; or (4) host allied troops on its border. [6] A state is also coded as an initiator if it tried to enhance its bargaining position by: (1) taking administrative actions intended to incorporate disputed territory under its domestic jurisdiction; (2) building state-owned assets in disputed lands; or (3) garnering transnational support for its claim either through bilateral treaties or international organizations.

The threshold for initiating revisionism at sea is considerably lower than the threshold for terrestrial disagreements. Most disputed features in the South China Sea can hardly support any life at all, let alone a battalion-sized element of soldiers. [7] Thus, a country is coded as an initiator if it instigates a change to its bargaining power by: (1) deploying any military hardware or personnel to a contested marine feature; (2) conducting live-fire naval drills in vicinity of a dispute; (3) increasing its administrative presence on a claimed feature; and/or (4) it issuing an official declaration at the ambassadorial level or higher that upsets the current situation. As demonstrated below, in almost all of China’s terrestrial MIDs, it used force only after its rival initiated a challenge to extant boundaries consistent with the above stated criteria. However, China’s sea-based MIDs followed an opposite pattern: in these cases, China initiated a revision to the maritime status quo. Tables 1-3 depict which state initiated what action corresponds to each historical case.


Table 1
Source: Correlates of War (COW) and Stanford's Mapping Interstate Territorial Conflict (MITC) repository


Table 2
Source: Correlates of War (COW) and Stanford's Mapping Interstate Territorial Conflict (MITC) repository

Table 3
Source: Correlates of War (COW) and Stanford's Mapping Interstate Territorial Conflict (MITC) repository



Case Studies—China’s Use of Force in Land Disputes: Taiwan, India, and the Soviet Union

The China-Taiwan relationship is emblematic of China’s strategy regarding border disputes writ large. Despite the salience of Taiwan’s political status, China has historically tolerated an uneasy equilibrium with its cross-strait rival. Once its adversary initiates a challenge to the status quo, as Taiwan did in the mid-1950s and in 1995, China usually responds with preemptive force to, as Henry Kissinger once put it, “deal [China’s adversary] a psychological blow to cause them to desist” (Poling 2022). 

China considers Taiwan a breakaway province whose separation from the mainland and partnerships with extra-regional powers represent the last remnant of China’s “century of humiliation” (Kissinger 2012). As long as a democratic Taiwan exists as an independent polity, it will continue to pose a threat to the CCP’s legitimacy, which is why CCP leaders have long associated Taiwan’s reunification with the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (ibid).  Given the centrality of the Taiwan question, Beijing has been highly sensitive to declines in its bargaining position with the Republic of China (ROC) government in Taipei. Nonetheless, China’s claim to Taiwan has been weak ever since National Party Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Nationalist government-in-exile, planted the ROC flag on the island in 1949. China controls virtually none of the disputed territory and still lacks the capability to launch a cross-strait invasion. But whenever Taiwan has tried to strengthen its bargaining position, China has been quick to stoke manufactured crises to signal its discontent, as it did in 1954-55, 1958, and 1995-96 (Economy 2021).

The First Taiwan Straits Crisis erupted in 1954 after the United States and Taiwan raised the possibility of a bilateral alliance in March 1953 (Fravel 2007). CCP officials feared that such a treaty would legitimize the island’s separation from the mainland, which would weaken China’s claim. Once more, in August 1954, a few weeks before the outbreak of hostilities, Chiang Kai-shek t reinforced the islands of Quemoy and Matsu with 58,000 and 15,000 troops, respectively (ibid). The combined pressure of international support for Taiwan and a shift in the local balance of force catalyzed Mao’s decision to test U.S. support for the Nationalists with a sustained artillery barrage. This move, however, had the opposite effect on Washington’s resolve. In the wake of this calamity, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and Taiwan’s Foreign Minister George K.C. Yeh signed a mutual defense treaty in November 1954, just two months before the PLA launched an amphibious invasion of the Dachens in 1955 (Pike). Tensions cooled later that year but flared up again in 1958 during the Second Taiwan Straits Crisis, after China discovered that Chiang had quietly stationed thousands more troops on Quemoy and Matsu, and that the United States planned to equip Taiwan with nuclear-tipped Matador missiles. Mao responded with another round of “artillery diplomacy” that caused over a thousand casualties and put U.S. nuclear forces on high alert (Kissinger 2012 and Tsou 1959).

The Second Taiwan Crisis ended in the fall of 1958 after much diplomatic hand wringing on behalf of China and the United States. Over the ensuing decades, the United States adopted a policy of “strategic ambiguity” that addressed the dual deterrence dilemma of a headstrong Chiang Kai-Shek and an opportunistic Mao Zedong (Kissinger 2012). Further catastrophes were kept in check until 1995 when the U.S. government broke with several decades of diplomatic protocol and issued a visa to Taiwan’s highest-ranking official, President Lee Teng-hui, to enter the United States (Cha 2009/2010). This move, in combination with the prospect of elections being held in Taiwan for the first time ever, reduced China’s bargaining power. China responded by bracketing the island with “routine” missile tests on the eve of Taiwan’s democratic elections. 

China’s experience with India and the Soviet Union followed a similar pattern. China only expanded into the Kashmir region in 1959-61 after India adopted its expansionist “Forward Policy'' in the Himalayan border region (Ross 2000). This involved, among other things, establishing security checkpoints in disputed territories along the MacMahon Line, and demanding territory claimed by the CCP. In March 1959, for example, India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sent a letter directly to Zhou Enlai, China’s first Premier, demanding that an additional 125,000 square kilometers of disputed land along the line of actual control be recognized as Indian territory (James 1984). Zhou flatly rejected this proposal. Nearly two years later, tensions reached new heights as a result of further Indian belligerence. India doubled down on its “Forward Policy” by deploying more troops to the border and occupying 15 strongpoints in Chinese-claimed land in Ladakh (Hongyi 2009). Indian troops were, according to official Indian history documents, tasked with patrolling “as far forward as possible from [India’s] present position toward the International Border as recognized by [India]…and also to dominate any Chinese outposts already established on our territory” (Pringsheim 1963). Faced with an untenable decline in its bargaining power, China launched headfirst into a war with India in fall 1962. China would repeat this strategy—i.e., maintaining an uneasy status quo at the border and then escalating after sensing an Indian provocation—again in 1967 by clashing with Indian soldiers who were strengthening fortifications at the disputed Nathu La mountain pass near Sikkim (Garver 2006).

China did not tolerate decreases in its bargaining power along the Sino-Soviet border either. In the 1960s, Beijing and Moscow’s relationship began to unravel as the universal bonds of Marxism-Leninism gave way to power politics. As both sides jockeyed for position as the leader of the global communist movement, the personal relationship between Mao and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev quickly deteriorated and the erstwhile allies grew increasingly suspicious of one another’s intentions. As a result, the Soviet Union began to militarize its southern border and reneged on its economic developmental commitments to China. In 1964, as the border between the two states grew more tense, boundary talks were held to settle uncertainties in the 1860 Treaty of Peking, which had ambiguously demarcated the eastern boundary between Russia and China (Balazs 2021). Although negotiations started well, Russia refused to recognize the unequal nature of its nineteenth century treaties with China and talks stalled indefinitely. Meanwhile, the Soviets continued to increase their military posture vis-a-vis China, nearly doubling the number of divisions stationed along the border. In January 1968, Soviet tanks crossed the centerline of the Ussuri River, which Russia claimed as its own (Gerson 2010). The PLA was put on high alert and in March 1969, Chinese troops ambushed a Soviet border patrol at Zhenbao Island on the frozen banks of the Ussuri. This action created a crisis milieu, and the Soviet Union and China nearly reached the brink of thermonuclear devastation. This episode, like the crises with India and Taiwan before it, demonstrates that when China senses a negative shift in its bargaining position, it is prone to use force to consolidate its position until its borders can be stabilized again. China would eventually reach for this playbook again in the late 1970s when Vietnam threatened to strengthen its own territorial claims and overrun Indochina with Vietnamese forces.

While these examples demonstrate China’s willingness to use force when it experiences negative shifts in its bargaining power, China’s experience with rival claimants that did not challenge the territorial status quo are also instructive. In the 1960s, for example, Mao signed several boundary agreements with contiguous neighbors that did not militarize their borders or proclaim territorial decrees that refuted China’s claims. In 1961, after much political deliberation, China and Burma ratified a treaty that demarcated their border, leaving imperial-era boundaries largely frozen in place (Hongyi 2009). Despite the painstaking political process, Burma did not inundate the Sino-Burmese boundary with troops and remained earnest in its attempts to reach an equitable solution (Trager 1964). Furthermore, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s disintegration in the early 1990s, China could have tried to recover the more than 34,000 square kilometers of terrain it claimed in Central Asia, as the newly formed states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan did not press their claims in a meaningful way. After China received assurances that they would not support separatist forces in Xinjiang, however, it conceded nearly 30,000 square kilometers of territory to the fledgling states (ibid).

China’s Maritime Revisionism: Vietnam and the Philippines 

If China’s experience with its contiguous neighbors demonstrates calculated restraint—sometimes followed by intense clashes to consolidate its land-based claims when it experienced a dip in bargaining power—its experience in the sea-domain demonstrates an inverse scenario. Rather than accept the maritime status quo, China has been apt to expand its claims during favorable geopolitical conditions (Fravel 2005). In the early 1970s, for instance, as the United States withdrew its naval power from Southeast Asia, China began to stake out claims to South Vietnamese-held atolls in the Paracel Islands. In 1973, China employed nominally civilian fishing vessels to plant Chinese flags on islands administered by the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). The fishermen also established logistic hubs on Duncan Island, and in 1974, established a seafood processing plant on Robert Island (Chubb 2021). As a result, the RVN navy deployed frigates to the Paracels to retain its territory. China, however, was quick to react and dispatched warships from Hainan Island to the Crescent Group for a counterattack. On the morning of January 19, 1974, RVN vessels clashed with Chinese ships and an hours-long naval battle ensued. China emerged victorious, and because the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet refused to aid the RVN navy, the Republic of Vietnam was forced to abandon its claims to the Crescent Group of the Paracels (Yoshihara 2016).

Chinese warships engaged the Vietnamese navy again in 1988 in the Spratly Islands under similar conditions. Here again, China waited for favorable strategic circumstances to expand its marine claims. The Soviet Union, which had been Vietnam’s patron since 1978, gradually reduced its alliance commitments to Vietnam over the course of the 1980s. By 1987, Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of retrenchment virtually ended all support for Vietnam (ibid). This period was also coterminous with a lull in activity in the South China Sea, and many claimant states did not seriously begin to occupy contested islands until the late 1980s, only after China made several territorial grabs in the Paracel and Spratly Islands (Tønnesson 2003). Indeed, internal CCP documents reveal that the strategic void left by Moscow created an opportunity to expand into the Spratlys with minimal risk of third-party intervention (Chubb 2021). Hence, China began an unprecedented level of “scientific surveys” and naval intrusions that increased its presence throughout the South China Sea. By late 1987, China had seized several reefs in the Spratlys, to include Fiery Cross Reef, which was located in close proximity to several features claimed by Vietnam. In March 1988, after months of increasingly aggressive behavior by the PLAN, Vietnamese vessels came into close contact with a Chinese warship that subsequently opened fire on the Vietnamese, sinking three ships, killing over 60 men, and leaving China in control of Johnson South Reef (ibid).

Chinese expansion into the Spratlys continued at an uneven pace over the next three decades, but China’s most belligerent cases—the seizure of Mischief Reef in 1994-95 and the occupation of Scarborough Shoal in 2012—also occurred during periods of regional quiescence. This time, however, it was the Philippines that found itself on the receiving end of China’s maritime coercion. In both instances, Manila was taken relatively unawares. As a perennially underdeveloped naval power, the Philippines was ill-equipped to identify incursions into its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The Philippines’ inability to hold marine terrain and increase its relative bargaining position over disputed claims was compounded in November 1992 when the U.S. military finally withdrew from Subic Naval Base located in Zambales. The retrenchment of U.S. naval power from Southeast Asia and dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s thus created a power vacuum, and China, sensing that geopolitical conditions were ripe for exploitation, began another round of expansion in the South China Sea (Tri and Koh 2018). In 1994, China-sponsored entities occupied Mischief Reef and built wooden edifices on what was officially considered to be a seabed scarcely 100 nautical miles from the Philippine Shore (Tønnesson 2003).

The period from 2009-2012 marked another watershed moment in Chinese maritime revisionism. In 2009, with much of the world still reeling from the 2008 Financial Crisis and the United States still bogged down in the Middle East, China promulgated its “nine dash line” claim in a note verbale at the United Nations, which asserted Chinese control over 90 percent of the South China Sea (Poling 2022). This declaration was followed by a spate of unprovoked naval brinkmanship, including PLA sorties that interfered with Philippine aircraft at Reed Bank, newly built Chinese infrastructure projects within the Philippine EEZ, and live-fire naval drills (Nguyen-Dang and Nguyen 2012). In April 2012, a Philippine patrol plane spotted eight Chinese fishing boats conducting illegal activities at Scarborough Shoal and the Philippines deployed its naval flagship, the Gregorio del Pilar, to investigate. China reacted by dispatching law enforcement vessels to the scene, which soon overwhelmed the Philippine ships, and after an intense months-long standoff, China established de facto control of the atoll (Palmer et al. 2020). The incidents in 1974, 1988, 1994-95, and 2012 all share a unifying theme. Rather than waiting for a provocation to go on the offensive, as China did with its contiguous border disagreements, it used force opportunistically to strengthen its bargaining power during periods when it sensed weakness on behalf of its rival claimants.


This paper has argued that China takes different approaches with respect to its boundary disagreements and maritime disputes due to the CCP’s internal risk calculus. China has traditionally been loath to initiate border crisis with its neighbors and Taiwan. Given that China has more contiguous neighbors than any other country, and only one treaty ally in North Korea, excessive belligerence could feasibly provoke unity between its neighbors, thereby risking strategic encirclement. Nonetheless, China will employ military power if provoked. When China senses a negative shift in its bargaining position, it will preemptively use force as a form of “offensive deterrence” to consolidate its claims and prevent future challenges to its terrestrial boundaries (Poling 2022).

China does, however, use an alternate strategy for its sea-based disputes. As its experience with the Paracel and Spratly Islands demonstrates, China is prone to exploiting auspicious geopolitical circumstances to revise the territorial status quo in its favor in littoral East Asia. This is because, while land-based disputes can stoke unmanageable levels of escalation, factors specific to the maritime domain are more likely to keep militarized incidents contained. In essence, the complex nature of the East and South China Seas (i.e., the convoluted legal regime that governs international waters, the number of actors with overlapping littoral claims, and U.S. ambivalence about picking sides regarding maritime disputes) mitigates the risk of counter-China coalitions from arising while also deterring third-party powers from intervening in Asia’s regional affairs. Accordingly, China can afford to be more belligerent in its near seas to settle long-standing territorial disputes.

The policy implications are twofold: first, the United States should tread lightly when wading into China’s land-based disputes and the issue of Taiwan since challenges to the status quo for these types of disputes have often led to military escalation. Practically speaking, that means the United States should pursue modest security force assistance efforts with China’s contiguous neighbors because selling advanced arms packages to countries like India could lead to instability on the Eurasian landmass. Additionally, the United States should maintain its policy of “strategic ambiguity” with regard to Taiwan unless the United States is sure that China has acquired the material capacity and political will to launch a cross-strait invasion. Second, the United States should take the opposite approach to the littoral rimlands of East Asia and increase its naval presence there. This is due to the fact that China has habitually exploited power vacuums when extra-regional powers retrenched from the Pacific. When the United States drew down in Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1990s, for example, China expanded its ambitions and seized maritime features from the Republic of Vietnam and the Philippines, respectively. In sum, to maintain stability in Asia, the United States should prioritize security assistance to Asia’s archipelagic nations while also bolstering its military presence in the Western Pacific. 

*This article was edited by Ellen Swicord (Princeton University) and Gustaf Reinfeldt (Columbia University).

About the Author

Ben Jebb is an army special forces officer with operational experience in Asia. He is primarily focused on irregular warfare in the Indo-Pacific region, and holds a BS from West Point and a Master's in Public Affairs from Princeton University. Ben is currently an instructor of international affairs at the United States Military Academy at West Point.


[1] Please Table 1 for a full list of territorial disputes where China used force in response to provocations by its territorial rivals.

[2] China has considered Tibet to be an integral part of Chinese territory since the 13th century. After the Chinese Civil War, Mao contended that Tibet was nothing more than a renegade province that wanted to form a unique polity, and he used the PLA to quash Tibetan uprisings in the 1950s.

[3] According to John Vasquez and the Correlates of War project, which Paul Diehl uses for his analysis cited in this work, land contiguity is defined as “the intersection of the homeland territory of the two states in a dyad, either through a land boundary or a river (such as the Rio Grande in the case of the U.S.-Mexico border).” I also use John Vasquez’s definition of maritime contiguity, which says that two countries that are separated by a body of water are considered contiguous only if they are less than 150 miles apart at their closest point. Consequently, Vietnam (which also shares a land border with China) is the only maritime rival that falls within the 150 mile threshold, and is therefore considered contiguous to China. 

[4] During the First and Second Taiwan Straits crises, the PLA shelled the islands of Quemoy, Matsu, and the Dachens with traditional artillery rounds. Taiwan is the only territory, aside from China’s other land border disputes, that can feasibly be shelled by the PLA on any given day.

[5] There are three exceptions to these coding rules. The first is China’s 1955-56 military occupation of islands claimed by South Vietnam in the Spratly archipelago. Although the COW datapoint states that China and South Vietnam were not the original initiators of this MID, qualitative evidence from Stein Tønnesson indicates that China occupied these Vietnamese-claimed islands after the French withdrew from Asia. The second exception is China’s missile tests during the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis. Although the highest action is only an “8,” China’s missile tests amounted to a blockade of Taiwan according to M. Taylor Fravel. Lastly, this paper includes the Third Indochina War in its analysis and tables. Although the 1979 war between Vietnam and China was about multiple issues, analysis by David Dreyer (One Issue Leads to Another: Issue Spirals and the Sino-Vietnamese War) states that border clashes and territorial issues were a crucial factor in the conflict.

[6] For more information about individual disputes, please see the appendix at the end of the paper.

[7] Since government officials rarely have direct control of individual tactical units, the threshold for increasing a country’s military presence on the border is coded as a battalion-sized element or larger. Given the size of most army battalions, and their air force and naval equivalents, it is reasonable to assume that their movements were planned by high-ranking government officials.


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