This rapid literature review presents the key literature on border disputes and micro-conflicts in
South and Southeast Asia. The focus is on recent ideas that are prevalent in literature from post2010. The literature review draws on both academic and grey literature.
The report finds that conflicts have become more complex and protracted often linked to global
challenges from climate change to human trafficking. Such challenges often intersect with complex socio-cultural, economic, and political dimensions that operate through power networks that transcend conventional conceptual boundaries, e.g. public vs. private or local vs. national.
Border regions are often identified as locations in which latent conflict is located, driven by a range of intersecting factors including (though not limited to), the unresolved tensions of colonialism, unclear or contested border demarcations, the historically porous nature of border regions, contestation over natural resources and the “less-” or “un”-governed nature of many such areas. Subnational conflicts with strong trans-border dimensions are the most widespread and enduring forms of conflict in South and Southeast Asia, affecting half the countries of the region.
Territorial disputes in Asia remain a challenge to the peace, stability, and prosperity of the region.
Of all interstate disputes, those over territory tend to be more likely to lead to armed conflict. A mix of political and economic interests, normative reasons, and competition over scarce natural resources have been identified as drivers of conflict over disputed territories. Such disputes vary greatly in terms of their origins, the scope of the territory in question, and the role these disputes play in the bilateral or multilateral relations of the states involved. There are numerous ways territorial disputes can be categorised. Brunet-Jailly (2015) present three categories of border disputes:
- Territorial disputes are about the land. They are the most complex ones as they undermine the integrity of states.
- Positional disputes arise when the parties agree in principle on a border but cannot agree on the position of the boundary line.
- Functional disputes are neither about territory nor the borderline but about competing understandings of the function that a certain border should perform.
Contestation over natural resources has often been included in such typologies.
Regional conflict systems are often characterised by their complexity; involving numerous actors,
causes, structural conditions, and dynamics. Such complexity poses difficulties to those looking to
undertake analysis of the regional dynamics of violence. It is also unclear how violence diffuses in regions and under which conditions a regional conflict system can emerge. It is also unclear who the key actors are in any given border dispute, how they engage with one another, and the extent to which they influence the nature and extent of the conflict.
The list of disputes presented in this report should be considered illustrative rather than exhaustive, selected to provide an insight into the multifaceted drivers of dispute and conflict. They are selected to highlight how relatively localised disputes can become global in scope as they intersect with contestations over political or economic power, are inflamed by political actors keen to exploit local grievances, or exacerbated by resource scarcity. Many of the disputes examined can be traced to the process of decolonisation and the various regional and domestic struggles that ensued. Despite the regional and global transformations that followed, these disputes continue to play an important role in relations between countries. Indeed historical contestations continue to be inscribed with new meaning as circumstances evolve.
Thailand / Cambodia Dispute(s): While the dispute between Thailand and Cambodia does have its roots in the colonial period of the region, the most important factor that led to the escalation of the dispute in 2008 and the subsequent clashes was domestic politics in Thailand.
India / Pakistan Dispute(s) – Jammu and Kashmir: The origins of this dispute can be traced to
the legacy of the British colonial rule in India and the nature of the British departure from the Indian subcontinent in 1947–8. Tensions in the Indo-Pak border can also be exacerbated by competition over resources, for example, tensions between India and Pakistan have risen from over the Baglihar dam construction over River Chenab in Indian-administered Kashmir.
India / China Dispute(s): Contemporary India / Chinese relationships is largely cordial and
key factors in regional stability. After the 1987 incident, relations between the two Asian giants transformed into a cold peace and while both sides officially maintain their territorial claims, whilst
accepting the status quo.
Nepal / India Dispute: Despite predominantly cordial relations there are times when border issues have taken a critical turn. One such recent border-related problem between India and Nepal was witnessed during the Madheshi movement. In 2015, an agitating section of the Madheshi community in Nepal blocked the India–Nepal border. Due to the sociocultural proximity of the Madheshi community with India, the blockade of the Indo-Nepal border has had repercussions for bilateral ties.
Bangladesh / India Dispute(s): The India–Bangladesh border is the fifth largest land border in the world measuring circa 4096.7 km. The India–Bangladesh border is viewed as a ‘security concern’ by New Delhi and has sought to securitise the border with Bangladesh viewing with concern the porous nature of the border making it accessible to the militant groups and smugglers
Bangladesh / Myanmar Dispute(s): The influence of geopolitics is evident in border disputes between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Myanmar occupies a strategic location bordering China and India and connected with the Indian Ocean through the Bay of Bengal. Criminality has also emerged as a significant issue in the region with Myanmar emerging as a significant hub for the production and distribution of methamphetamine and its derivatives.
South China Sea Maritime Disputes: The territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea are considered some of the most complex conflicts in the region if not worldwide (Bukh, 2020). The disputed areas are abundant in natural resources such as gas and oil and also carry strategic importance, as roughly half of the world’s commercial shipping passes through them. These disputes played an important role not only in the relations among the claimants but also in the foreign policies of countries such as Japan and the United States. The disputes involve overlapping maritime, territorial, and fishing rights and claims by China, Taiwan, Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia.