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date: 27 March 2017

Conflict Management of Territorial and Maritime Disputes

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Of all the issues disputed by states, territorial and maritime disputes are by far the most conflictual and burdensome for the states involved, and they often affect regional and international security. In many cases, such disputes can also be very costly, not only in terms of military defense or threats of force to take the disputed territory or maritime area, but also in lost revenue, lost trade between the disputing states, and the costs of rivalry that often results from such disputes. The resolution of most territorial and maritime disputes yields significant benefits for the adversarial states, including the reduction of future armed conflict, rivalry termination, and increased economic gains. Yet these disputes are often difficult to resolve, leading to years or decades of stalemate and sometime armed conflict. Often, states are resistant to attempts at resolution because they can take advantage of the disputes as bargaining leverage, linked with other disputed issues, leaving little incentive to attempt resolution. In these cases, peaceful resolution of the disputes is less likely, and the threat of militarized conflict continues for the disputing states.

When there are attempts at peaceful resolution by the states involved in territorial and maritime disputes, leaders and governments have several options. The most common, yet most ineffective means of peaceful resolution attempts is bilateral negotiations between the adversarial states. Though the least costly and most direct means of resolution, bilateral negotiations often involve multiple stages and only sometimes lead to resolution. This is due mainly to the challenge of dividing intangible values of the disputed areas, especially if they hold significant nationalist or symbolic value, or of high-level tangible resources such as oil, of which states are unwilling to let go. Mediation by non-binding third parties can be a strategy states use to resolve disputes. The most effective strategies, in terms of compliance, but also the most costly are arbitration and adjudication, which are legally binding resolution methods. Not only do states make a choice about whether to attempt peaceful resolution of their disputes, but they also need to consider which forum would be the most effective. Several factors influence the strategic selection of peaceful resolution methods, and there are different outcomes depending on the resolution strategy attempted. Overall, the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes is an important but complicated issue for states both directly involved and indirectly affected by the persistence of such disputes.