7.3.1  Territorial Conflicts

(The latest version of this page is at Pattern Descriptions.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/731.htm)

There are several types of dispute between countries in which military power might be used to try to acquire or retain territory:

·      Land has often been acquired by force historically – as was attempted in the Second World War – but since the founding of the UN there have been relatively few invasions of one country by another in order to seize control of it.  The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, which led to the ‘First Gulf War’, was a notable exception: it was swiftly quelled with a UN-authorised military intervention.[1]  Israel’s expansion in the ‘six-day war’ was another acquisition of territory by force; the captured land has not been wholly restored in that example.[2]

·      Old boundary disputes keep recurring and are relatively common.  The Iraq-Iran war of 1980-88 was an example where the border was cited as one of the causes of the dispute.[3]

·      Land is a source of economic power, most obviously for raw materials and crops; resource shortages – of food, water and minerals – have the potential to spark conflicts.  There has been sabre-rattling over islands which have valuable natural resources in the South China Sea, for example.[4]

·      A regime might wish to shore up its domestic support by attempting to redress some perceived historic injustice, as with the Argentinean invasion of the Falklands in 1982 (6.3.6).

In the examples given, the armed forces of the participant countries confronted each other with the aim of changing the position of the boundary between them.  They relied upon the use of force, rather than submitting their disputes to the International Court of Justice for resolution (

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[1] The Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Persian Gulf War, which described Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, gave his motive as “the apparent aim of acquiring that nation’s large oil reserves, canceling a large debt Iraq owed Kuwait, and expanding Iraqi power in the region”.  This entry was available in May 2014 at http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/452778/Persian-Gulf-War

[2] BBC summary maps show the extent of the territorial gains made by Israel in the 1967 ‘six-day war’; they also record that the Sinai was returned to Egypt two years later as part of the peace deal between the two countries.  These maps were available in May 2014 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/middle_east/03/v3_israel_palestinians/maps/html/six_day_war.stm.

[3] The GlobalSecurity.org website published an article entitled Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), which gives a brief history of the war and the border dispute which was one of its causes; this was available in May 2014 at http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/iran-iraq.htm.

[4] On 13 April 2012 AsiaSentinel.com published an article entitled Will the South China Sea Lead to War?  It was available in May 2014 at http://www.asiasentinel.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=4417&Itemid=188.