Boundary Disputes

In 1962, China and India went to war. The primary reason? They could not agree on how their political boundary should be drawn. 

Boundary Disputes Boundary Disputes

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Table of contents

    Boundary disputes like this have been happening for thousands of years. Sometimes, political entities do not agree on the definition of a boundary, or maybe they don't agree with the location of where a boundary has been placed. Let's discuss the causes and types of boundary disputes, with that 1962 war serving as a case study for how boundary disputes can turn deadly.

    Definition of Boundary Disputes

    Political boundaries demarcate the sovereignty of different political entities. In other words, they indicate which governments are in charge of which areas.

    Political boundaries can be either negotiated or enforced. A negotiated political boundary is agreed upon through political dialogue or a formal treaty. Many of our world's extant political boundaries are peacefully agreed upon (although they may have originally been formed through warfare!). An enforced political boundary may not necessarily be agreed upon but is categorically maintained through the threat of the use of force.

    Sometimes, both negotiations and the threat of force fail, and political entities fail to come to an agreement about how a political boundary should be drawn. There are many reasons this might happen: both political entities may feel a cultural or nationalistic connection to land along the border, or perhaps a valuable economic resource lies just out of reach.

    When a political boundary cannot be agreed upon, the result may be a boundary dispute.

    A boundary dispute is a situation in which a political boundary is contested.

    Boundary disputes involving contested borders have, historically, often led to warfare. Boundary disputes remain a major cause of military conflict.

    Types of Boundary Disputes

    There are four broad types of political boundary disputes: operational, allocational, locational, and definitional.

    Allocational Boundary Disputes

    Allocational boundary disputes revolve around disagreements over the allocation of resources and prosperous land. Suppose a valuable economic resource lies just beyond the border of a country's political boundaries...if only the lines could be redrawn ever so slightly, all that wealth could change hands! Allocational boundary disputes have historically been a common impetus for war.

    Boundary Disputes, Types of Boundary Disputes, Allocational Boundary Disputes, Alaskan Boundary Dispute, StudySmarterFig. 1 - This historical dispute over the Alaskan border, resolved in 1903, involved access to gold

    Operational Boundary Disputes

    Operational boundary disputes involve the operation of a boundary between two political entities. How is border security handled? Who may pass through each side of the border, and under what conditions? What can and cannot be built along the border? Operational boundary disputes often involve each political entity's respective responsibility for the maintenance of the border.

    Definitional Boundary Disputes

    A definitional boundary dispute may emerge when two political entities cannot agree on a common definition of where their boundaries lie. This dispute may occur when multiple treaties (or other legal documents) defining where borders should be drawn are active simultaneously, but contradict each other. This may be the result of a bad land survey or even a misunderstanding of the boundary being claimed by the other party.

    Locational Boundary Disputes

    Locational boundary disputes are perhaps the most incendiary type of boundary dispute because they are ideological in nature. Locational boundary disputes emerge when parties disagree with the way a political boundary was drawn because they fundamentally do not accept the premise of the political boundary in question. Detractors may see a political boundary as illegitimate, immoral, or unjustifiable.

    Locational boundary disputes may occur when the traditional (or perceived traditional) territory of an ethnic, political, or religious group is divided by political boundaries. Such groups may perceive these boundaries as particularly egregious if they have been imposed upon them, rather than negotiated.

    Locational boundary disputes can be a major catalyst for violence. Those who dispute the boundary are willing to put their lives on the line not necessarily for economic gain, but because they perceive the boundaries in question as morally wrong and in need of redress. In addition to conventional wars, locational boundary disputes may also give rise to Terrorism.

    The Real Irish Republican Army and other terrorist organizations committed acts of terror throughout the United Kingdom in protest of the political boundary dividing UK-controlled Northern Ireland from the rest of Ireland.

    Locational boundary disputes are closely tied to Irredentism; see our explanation to learn more.

    Maritime Boundary Disputes

    If we had to take a guess, we'd bet that for all of the types of boundary disputes listed above, you probably visualized them taking place on land. But boundary disputes can occur at sea as well!

    Unlike land-based political boundaries, which take shape after centuries of negotiation and warfare, our maritime boundaries are almost entirely defined by the United Nations via the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This means that all coastal nations are working within the same set of rules to define what is economically and politically theirs at sea, as well as what can and cannot be done in another country's territorial waters—virtually eliminating allocational and operational disputes.

    However, locational and definitional disputes still occur. Definitional disputes, which can be economically motivated, often involve "rocks," small landforms at sea that cannot support life and are not recognized in UNCLOS. Countries may try to classify these rocks as full-fledged islands in an attempt to expand their maritime boundaries.

    Locational disputes often involve disagreements over the rightful ownership of small island chains, but many countries also claim that their cultural relationship with a part of the ocean trumps the boundaries that have been defined by UNCLOS.

    The People's Republic of China claims sole ownership of the South China Sea due to historical precedence, putting it into a maritime locational boundary dispute with Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

    Boundary Disputes Between States

    Internal boundary disputes can and do occur. In the US, for example, North Carolina and Georgia went to war in 1804 over a small strip of land that had not been properly assigned to either state. The Walton War, as it was known, ended in North Carolina's favor through a combination of military superiority and an improved land survey of the area.

    But most boundary disputes between the US states never escalated to the level of war. These disputes have often been resolved via interstate compacts, a kind of agreement negotiated between the states. In some cases, internal boundary disputes in the United States have been arbitrated by the US Supreme Court.

    Case Studies of International Boundary Disputes

    There are currently hundreds of international boundary disputes in the world. Some disputes may be resolved by the countries themselves, while others need to be arbitrated by a third party like a foreign nation or the United Nations.

    We will use both the Mont Blanc boundary dispute and the Sino-Indian border dispute as case studies.

    France, Italy, and the Peak of Mont Blanc

    Mont Blanc is a mountain high in the Alps, a popular destination for tourists who love hiking, backpacking, and skiing. Mont Blanc is on the border between France and Italy; the Swiss border is very close to the northeast. Mont Blanc has changed ownership at least half a dozen times in European history, with several different treaties defining whom the mountain actually belongs to.

    Boundary Disputes, Mont Blanc ownership, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Mont Blanc is a popular tourist destination, but ownership is murky

    At present, the ownership of Mont Blanc is a definitional boundary dispute between France and Italy. This is no simple issue: France signed an agreement with the Kingdom of Sardinia on March 7th, 1861, to define the borders of the mountain based on pre-existing maps and agreements, essentially splitting the mountain between France and Sardinia. Just 10 days later, Sardinia became the Kingdom of Italy, and French and Italian cartographers began publishing contradictory maps about how much of the mountain was owned by each side.

    Boundary Disputes, Mont Blanc Map 1869, StudySmarterFig. 3 - An 1869 Italian-made map showing contemporary Italian understanding of Mont Blanc's ownership

    Functionally, the mountain is shared by the French and Italians, with the French maintaining the northwest side of Mont Blanc and the Italians maintaining the southeast. But the ownership of the summit itself has yet to be resolved. The French claim that virtually all of Mont Blanc is theirs, while the Italians argue that this claim has no legal basis. The border dispute remains ongoing and occasionally serves as a talking point in Italian and French politics; no military action has been explicitly related to this dispute.

    Most foreign and intranational political entities also seem at a loss as to how to formally categorize the ownership of the mountain.

    The Sino-Indian Border Dispute

    There are several areas along the border between China and India that are contested. These areas are collectively part of the Sino-Indian Border Dispute, ongoing in one form or another since the mid-18th century.

    You may occasionally see "Sino" as a shorthand for things related to China. This is because the Latin word for China was Sinae.

    The two largest contested portions of the border are the state of Arunachal Pradesh, controlled by India, and the Aksai Chin region, controlled by China. China claims that Arunachal Pradesh is rightfully part of Tibet, which they control, while India claims that Aksai Chin is rightfully part of its Ladakh Union Territory.

    The Sino-Indian Border Dispute is part definitional dispute, part locational dispute. The controversy surrounding who owns what largely stems from a series of contradictory maps and atlases created by British surveyors and cartographers in the 18th and 19th centuries, when they were trying to figure out just how much of the Asian continent belonged to their empire.

    Boundary Disputes, Case Studies, Sino-Indian Border Dispute Map, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Large areas along the Chinese-Indian border are contested

    The modern governments of the Republic of India and the People's Republic of China have taken up the dispute, and the conflict seems mainly to involve the principle of the thing. While both regions do bring something to the table in terms of military strategy, agriculture, and mining, neither really contribute that much to the economy or mainstream culture of either India or China. In fact, the border regions are home to several ethnic groups that have little connection to the Hindu-oriented culture of India or the Han-oriented culture of China, including the Nyishi, Uyghur, and Tibetans.

    The boundary dispute has turned bloody more than once. In 1960, Chinese and Indian officials met to try to come to an agreement over their borders but failed to do so. The 1962 Sino-Indian War was fought to once and for all establish the borders (though political tensions were already sky-high since India had supported the 1959 Tibetan riots). Fighting began in October. China pushed India back slightly, at the cost of several thousand lives on each side. The governments agreed to a ceasefire around a month after the war began.

    The Sino-Indian War also established the Line of Actual Control. The Line of Actual Control does not represent what each government claims, but what they actually control. It is a de facto, enforced political boundary.

    Border skirmishes have continued, on and off, since the end of the Sino-Indian War. For example, in 2020, skirmishes broke out due to China's opposition to India's construction of a road near the Line of Actual Control. After dozens of casualties on both sides, India and China agreed to return to the status quo in early 2021.

    Boundary Disputes - Key takeaways

    • A boundary dispute is a situation in which a political boundary is contested.
    • There are four major types of boundary disputes: locational, definitional, allocational, and operational.
    • France and Italy cannot agree on their border on and around Mont Blanc thanks to centuries of contradictory treaties, surveys, and atlases.
    • Huge parts of the border between China and India are contested and are delineated by the Line of Actual Control, which serves as a de facto political boundary.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Boundary Disputes

    How are boundary disputes and interstate compacts settled? 

    Boundary disputes may be resolved by treaties, interstate compacts, or another legal document or proceeding negotiated by the political entities involved or arbitrated by a third party such as the Supreme Court. In the worst-case scenario, boundary disputes may be resolved through war.

    What does boundary dispute mean? 

    A boundary dispute is a situation in which a political boundary is contested; the boundaries of the border cannot be agreed upon. 

    What are the types of boundary disputes? 

    The four major types of boundary disputes are operational, allocational, locational, and definitional. 

    What causes boundary disputes? 

    The four principal causes of boundary disputes are: desire to access economic resources; disagreement about the function of a boundary; disagreement over the actual definition of a boundary; and disagreement over the location a boundary has been placed. 

    Who can help with boundary disputes? 

    Boundary disputes should be resolved by the countries themselves or may need to be arbitrated by a third party like a foreign nation or the United Nations.  

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following types of boundary disputes is associated with the location of economic resources?

    Which of the following types of boundary disputes is associated with disagreements over how a boundary has been defined? 

    Which of the following types of boundary disputes is associated with the actual function of a political boundary?

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