Ritualized Hostilities in Territorial Disputes

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-4625-8360
Huang, Carl Pi-Cheng, Foreign Affairs - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Potter, Philip, Department of Politics, University of Virginia

Why are some provocative acts between states with territorial disputes more escalatory than others? Territorial disputes are the most likely cause of war. To understand why a territorial dispute escalates, most existing work focuses on the characteristics of the disputing parties and the dispute itself. However, these are far from the only conditions that explain territorial dispute escalation. In response to this observation, I introduce a new theory that focuses on the actual interactions between states and brings further clarity to the question by studying the stabilizing effect of “ritualization.” While a hostile provocation might deteriorate bilateral relations and escalate tensions, if the said provocation has been regularly repeated by the actors—a pattern I term “ritualized”—observers are less likely to feel threatened. As a useful analogy, if one views a territorial dispute as a pot of boiling water on the stove, the argument presented here is that ritualization is the equivalence of regularly letting the steam off.

The research design tackles how ritualization can stabilize a territorial dispute through a conjoint survey experiment and a time-series analysis of South Korea-Japan bilateral events in the context of the territorial issue (Dokdo/Takeshima) between the two countries. South Korea and Japan constitute a useful case to understand ritualization due to the existence of both ritualized and non-ritualized provocations in their recent interactions and the possibility to collect fine-grained survey data for testing the theory’s mechanisms. To externally validate the findings outside of South Korea and Japan, I develop a dispute-level measurement of ritualization to test the effect of ritualization across all territorial disputes in the international system.

This dissertation challenges the common assumption that repetition of hostile behaviors makes a territorial dispute more escalatory by showing how they are, in fact, part of the maintenance of a disputed international relationship. Instead of being a destabilizer that increases uncertainty and the chance of unintended escalation, these events stabilize adversaries by creating predictable patterns of interaction and perceptions of mutual understanding. The implication of this finding suggests that regions with ostensible hostilities between rivalries might not be as dangerous as they appear to be, and the United States should formulate its policy based on the pattern instead of the presence of provocations alone.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Territorial Disputes, International Security, East Asian Security, Ritualization, International Relations, Habituation, Dispute Escalation
Sponsoring Agency:
Korea FoundationUVA Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
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