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Published on 25th July 2019

Can States Really Control Their Borders?

Borders are a way to enter countries where people, services and goods are able to circulate. However, while states are able to say who is allowed access to their country, they have very limited control over their borders as conflicts often arise between different states over where the border between their countries should lie, as they constantly want to try and expand their land to gain more resources which will help their economies. This means that many borders can become unclear as countries are constantly changing where their boundary line is.

For many years now, India and China have been fighting over the border that separates their countries. “Although India strove to solve the border problem through peaceful negotiations; China steadily encroached into the Indian territories throughout 1959-62”, and in October 1962, China sprang an attack along the border, which left them in control of big sections of Indian ground. Then, in November 1962 while their expansion was growing steadily, they withdrew along the whole border, warning that they would strike again if India decided to try and cross the border and retake territory from the eastern and western sectors. This example shows how ongoing debates about borders can take power away from countries, as India and China are still attempting to come to an agreement about where their land ends. “Relatively few settlement attempts between countries in border disputes end in a substantive agreement”, and this is due to the fact that the countries arguing both want control over where their border will lie and what land they will own, however, neither is willing to compromise. This means that India and China will continue to battle for power because whoever ends up deciding where the border will be will ultimately have more control over it as they will be in possession of the land and resources they want and need.

Central Asia has undergone many different changes to their borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to Zainiddin Karaev, the countries in Central Asia were created by the Soviet region in the 1920s, and their boundaries and territories were not made along natural geographical lines or ethic lines. The Soviet’s deliberately mixed up cultures and neglected the geography of the landscape when they drew the border lines, which meant that during their rule they had to constantly adjust the borders to suit their needs. Zhulduz Baizakova believed that the smaller conflicts that occurred were due to the borders being unclear, and so the political and economic relationships between the countries were affected. This example once again shows the limited control states have over their borders because larger powers are often able to take control of smaller states’ land and so decide where they want the boundaries to be. However, when borders are indistinct and blurred it can cause huge territorial disputes, and Karaev claims these disputes are often about resources and how to control them. The Soviet’s wanted complete control of all the resources in Central Asia but had to keep altering where the boundary lines were so they could have easy access to the resources they required. The problems across Central Asia help highlight how important it is to have definite boundaries that suit the ethnicities and geographies of the land because without this, countries will continue to try and expand their territory. The result is that they losing control of the land they already have due to the fact that they have not set a border line and so cannot say where their land starts and ends, and so other countries will easily be able to take land away from them because the state does not have complete control over what territory is actually theirs.

A big cause of conflict between countries is in relation to boundary control. B. L. Shah believes that these conflicts are caused by particular groups of people, disagreements over specific issues, aggressive attitudes, or governmental and military actions. Disputes can be resolved by proper negotiation and compromise, as they are often over areas of shared interest, while conflicts arise because of identities and the nature of people. If one person, who has a compassionate disposition, approaches another with the same characteristics about a common issue between them, they are likely to come to an agreement because their personalities mesh well together and so they can solve the dispute. If, however, one person, who has a harsh temperament, approaches another with the same nature about a common issue between them, their personalities are likely to clash, and so a conflict will arise. Justwan and Fisher state that if there is a dispute or conflict that is not resolved it is then put out to the rest of the world, “and foreign policy executives apply these guidelines in their behaviour towards other countries”. This highlights how important it is for countries to try and take control of their borders because the rest of the world will judge them based on how they showcase their power. If one country is not able to control their border and keeps having land taken from them by surrounding states, then other states around the world are unlikely to form an alliance or come to their aid. This is due to the fact that if that country is not able to exercise control over their own borders and land, then it is questionable whether they would be able to help another state in a time of need.

Border disputes mainly arise due to the fact that they serve so many different functions for states and between states. Boundaries help to determine the defensive barriers of a country which is necessary to know when planning any military strategies. Because of this, countries are likely to fight to gain more land, so they have more options for their military plans. Borders are also vital to the economy as they define the population of a state: the bigger the territory, the more people can live there. If there are more people, then this will mean that there are more job opportunities which will make the economy develop and flourish. Blanchard says that “borders provide emotional security to states and their inhabitants”, meaning that the people in that state feel safe to live there without fear of persecution or danger as nations are allowed to exclude ethnic groups they do not want in their land. Finally, if a border is drawn in a certain way, then it can take resources that will help grow the economy and define the markets. These examples demonstrate why states are unable to control their borders because they want to make sure their border fulfils all the functions they require. This means that states will continue to fight to try and obtain new land and resources to benefit themselves and their economies and so they will constantly be distorting the boundary lines.

Jean-Marc Blanchard wrote about the power politics tradition, which is a set of features that is used to help understand disputes over borders. There are three levels within the approach: the proximity, the ‘utilitarian’, and the realist. Proximity is important as it is about how close states are, because if there is a border dispute it is between states which reside next to each other. An example of proximity issues is from Medieval Europe which was based around the Feudal System. The system was decentralised and left many people with claims to the same areas of land due to the borders being unclear. This illustration shows that states need to be aware of their neighbour countries and what land they possess so they can efficiently control their borders, because in Medieval Europe the people were fighting over the property because it was all overlapping and they did not know who owned what areas. With the ‘utilitarian’, this is stating that the conflicts over boundaries are due to power politics rather than people actually disagreeing. In Medieval Europe, they came up with the idea of dividing land based on physiographic features. However, the issue with this was that the people then tried to form their land claims around certain natural features, and so “the idea of natural borders generally served as little more than a veiled excuse for territorial expansion”. This example shows that the people tried to decide where borders should lie between their land but because they were all trying to exercise their own power to get the land they desired, this approach did not work. The final level in power politics tradition is the realist, which is centred around how to divide up land so that people of the same culture can share the same land. During the ongoing conflicts in Medieval Europe, “it became increasingly common to argue that borders should correspond to ethnic and linguistic divisions”. This was just as difficult, however, as decisions were still made based on personal interest rather than the interest of the state. This meant that while all the people agreed that dividing up land based on culture was the correct way to approach the situation, they were only interested in getting what they wanted, and so once again the system did not work. The examples of the power politics tradition and the conflicts within Medieval Europe show how easily states and people can lose control of their borders when they are not willing to set clear boundaries and compromise. Having blurred boundary lines means no one has complete control over the border because it does not exist, and so there is no border for any state to control.

States are unable to effectively control their borders because there are so many conflicts constantly being created over boundary lines. Countries are always trying to compete for better land and resources and so they want to expand their territory to gain this. Having distinct boundaries means that conflicts are unlikely to arise as both states know where their land ends, and also means they have power over how migration transpires in their country and who can enter and leave. The main reasons states are not able to control their borders is because conflicts will continue to occur over where the boundaries are set as countries will always see something that another nation has, and they will want it for themselves. States will never have complete control of their borders because there will always be a new area of land or a new resource that they will want to gain to help benefit their economy and the people living in it.


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NOTE: This article was written based on an assignment I did for my university unit World in Crisis