This blog post is part of the series What to Read.
Living in Thailand, and closely linked to efforts supporting individuals and groups in Myanmar handling the aftermath of the 2021 military coup, I hear frequent comments as to why the international focus on Ukraine has not been maintained in Asia. There are many reasons for this, and it is not my aim to answer such questions here. However, in my journeys around Asia, I frequently learn about local territorial disputes with which outsiders to the region would be unacquainted. Many of these cases were unknown to me, and so this What to Read digest has allowed a closer look at recent papers concerning three different disputes.
What we see are complex cases drawing upon mixed readings of historical and political relationships between emerging states. Indeed, such are the pluralistic interpretations of the past that it can be difficult for international legal mechanisms to make a clear ruling on the rights of one actor over the other. Yet such disputes can also be about the present and represent strategic stances to justify and promote national identities. The rise of nationalist populism often shrouds ambiguities in the demarcation of state borders, although such ambiguities are then used to fire up the rhetoric. The final paper in this digest presents a fascinating view of how two countries promote their causes through carpet museums. This shows that while land can be fought for as a commodity, it is also so much more, supporting social, cultural, and religious identities.
Articles reviewed in this issue:
Articles reviewed in this issue:
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The April 2021 Kyrgyz-Tajik Border Dispute: Historical and Causal Context
By Erin McGlinchey
In a post-Soviet era, tensions have emerged in the border areas of newly independent Central Asian states, with complications arising over previously shared land areas and infrastructure. At times this has erupted into scenes of violence, disturbing otherwise peaceful communities. One such area involves the border zone joining southwest Kyrgyzstan and northeast Tajikistan. There have been numerous clashes over the last twenty years, and the most severe was also one of the most recent. From 29th April to 1st May 2021, skirmishes along the border resulted in 36 Kyrgyz and 19 Tajik deaths. The brief article from Eric McGlinchey is part of a series of policy briefs for Central Asia, as produced through George Mason University in the State of Virginia. The central thesis of McGlinchey is that border conflicts cannot be reduced to singular causes. Instead, multiple tensions are found in the border zone, which sporadically morph into outbursts of violence, such as in the April 2021 conflict.
Photo: Water infrastructure close to the Tajik-Kyrgyz border. The sharing of water resources has been a source of tension for border relations. Credit: USAID Central Asia under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic licence
Conflict over common pool resources
Tensions exist over previously shared resources between the two countries, such as fruit trees, roads, and water irrigation channels. The trigger to the April 2021 violence involves a competing claim over the Golovnoi sluice gate, which regulates water from the Ak Suu (Kyrgyz) / Isfara (Tajik) river to downstream communities of both countries. While Tajik authorities accused Kyrgyzstan of trying to take control of the facility, Kyrgyzstan baulked at the placement of a Tajik security camera within their territory to monitor the area. This led to rock throwing between communities, which then escalated into the involvement of state forces, who exchanged gunfire and mortars at multiple sites along the border.
Unclear demarcation of national boundaries
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan share a 976km border of which 472km are not specifically and mutually agreed upon. The situation is further complicated by the existence of national enclaves within countries. There are two enclaves of Tajikistan within Kyrgyzstan, and it should also be noted that there are four Kyrgyz enclaves in Uzbekistan and two Uzbek enclaves (one each in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). The messiness of borders is not wholly unintentional. During Soviet times, the lack of formal demarcation could be used to exert the authority of central government as opposed to the rise of local elites. In a post-Soviet era, with Central Asian states gaining independence, this lack of clarity became a pronounced and as-yet unresolved issue. McGlinchey claims that a reason why fighting is infrequent is due to a certain distancing of national governments to disputes between rural populations when it comes to pastures and croplands. In this way, state forces are held back from involvement in any protracted conflict.
Enclaves from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Photo credit: Lencer under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence
Unlike Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan has not yet joined the Eurasian Economic Union (a grouping that includes Armenia, Russia and Kazakhstan) and a consequence is that fuel is priced 40% higher. There is significant illicit trade in fuel, together with other commodities, including drugs from Afghanistan on route to Russian and European markets. While this provides a significant revenue for local warlords and other actors, state governance is weak in border areas, including the development of a professional border force. This undermines any attempt to address issues that exacerbate border tensions such as illicit trade.
Despite weak governance in border areas, national leaders use tensions to promote a populist agenda and garner support in anger against neighbouring countries. Again, this maintains tensions, but fortunately has not yet spilled over from rhetoric into prolonged state-based violence.
McGlinchey rightly states that any attempt to address prolonged conflict must not only look to specific incidents that act as a spark to violence but also the deeper underlying dynamics creating tension. There is no simple solution here and it is clear how the rising importance of boundaries through state independence can disturb otherwise peaceful communities and the land and resources that they previously shared. It is also worth noting the value of the short, immediate report, acting halfway between a journalistic piece and an authoritative in-depth academic analysis. This provides a rapid reaction to an event that acts as an immediate reflection and helps inform the creation of a historical perspective as time passes.
Interstitial Space and the High Himalayan Dispute between China and India
By Christopher Rossi
This fascinating detailed paper by Christopher Rossi concerns conflict along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) separating India and China. Of particular interest is a 1,000 stretch of the LAC along the Himalyan Galwan River Valley, which dissects eastern Ladakh and the Chinese-controlled territory of Aksai Chin at the edge of the Xinjiang region. The area is largely uninhabited, hard to access, and has poorly demarcated border points. On 15th June 2020, Chinese and Indian troops clashed in the Galwan Valley, the fourth serious encounter since 2013. At least 20 Indian soldiers died, and an Indian news agency reported over 40 Chinese fatalities. Further complicating the situation is the proximity of the area to Jammu and Kashmir, a highly militarised and contested zone between India and Pakistan together with Kashmiri aims for self-determination. This morphs a bilateral dispute into a triangular conflict, dragging traditionally quiet Ladakh into a state of turmoil.
Photo: Indo-China border area in arid and remote Ladakh. Credit: Aditya Laghate under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
While many territorial disputes may take place over the smallest of areas, this case concerns some 100,000 km2. International courts and tribunals have long been happy to confer titles to territory based on historical proofs. Yet here the complexity of historical relations and resulting ambiguity all but makes such a ruling impossible. This highlights a disjunct between interstitial lands (i.e., land without clear demarcation of their boundaries) and a Eurocentric certainty of statehood based around clearly defined borders. Rather than territory containing bounded social organisation and singular state actors, the Galwan Valley region displays ethnic, religious and linguistic pluralism, making for a jumbled mix of political legal histories.
The background to the dispute leads back to expansionist British policies in the Indian subcontinent, leading to the nineteenth century imposition of British rule. Rossi traces a haphazard phase of boundary mapping by colonial powers in the region. The Great Game involved a push of British forces into the Himalayas and Afghanistan to counter Russian interests from the north.
There were already land disputes in the Ladakh-Aksai Chin area, between Kashmiri, Sikh, Tibetan and Chinese interests. Britain gained control of Ladakh in 1846, and various attempts were made to create border lines separating Ladakh, Xinjiang and Tibet. One proposed boundary (known as the Ardagh-Johnson Line) claimed Aksai Chin as part of Ladakh, and therefore British India. A later, more defendable line was proposed (known as the Macartney- MacDonald Line), which ceded much of Aksai Chin to the Chinese, and roughly follows the existing LAC from today, although it was never ratified by China. India continued to view the Ardagh-Johnson Line as its border, seeing Aksai Chin as an area bequeathed to the newly independent nation.
Kashmir region (2020 skirmish locations). The map of the disputed Kashmir region was created by the United States CIA in 2004 and hosted by the University of Texas at Austin Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection; it was altered to show new jurisdictions by Fowler&fowler in November 2019; a further adaptation shows the 2020 skirmish locations by MarkH21 in June 2020. The red circles mark the rough locations of the conflicts in the Galwan Valley (top), Chang Chenmo Valley checkpoint (middle), and Pangong Tso (near the bottom). Photo credit: United States Central Intelligence Agency under public domain
Due to imprecise cartography and shifting strengths between the actors involved, whole areas of undefined territory emerged, with overlapping claims to the remote land. China itself followed a policy of ambiguity over border lines, to allow strategic flexibility in its relations to neighbouring powers. It is inevitable that a legacy of contestation and conflict was being laid, the confusion allowing for contradictory historical proofs that could be put forward to justify territorial claims.
After 1949, China dumped unfair treaties with colonial powers, including demarcation agreements. It effectively annexed Aksai Chin in the 1950s. The month-long 1962 Sino-China War resulted in further territorial gains, leading to the approximate LAC that exists today. The paper emphasises that international legal tools fail to help reach a resolution. However, confidence building measures have been put in place by India and China to facilitate dialogue.
The paper asserts that the only means to improve dialogue is through such confidence building measures and not to return to competing historical narratives.
Overall, Rossi identifies the border areas in the High Himalayas as the most problematic in the world. It is an ill-defined and hard to defend area, where increased militarisation only creates new security issues. In geo-political terms, the threat of conflict is not high enough to engage the nuclear capacities of China and India, which would undermine an important economic relation. Yet China’s expansionism through its Belt and Road Initiative (particularly into Pakistan) remains a cause of concern to India, who subsequently have developed their strategic relationship with the United States.
Heritage and territorial disputes in the Armenia–Azerbaijan conflict: a comparative analysis of the carpet museums of Baku and Shusha
By Ali Mozaffari & James Barry
Taking place from 27th September to 20th November 2020, an outbreak of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan resulted in much territory taken by Armenia during the First Karabakh War (1992–1994) being recaptured by Azerbaijan. Despite a subsequent ceasefire, a lasting peace agreement is yet to be signed, and the conflict continues to play out in various media beyond the battlefield. This paper by Mozaffari and Barry explores how claims of cultural heritage are weaponised, focusing on how two carpet museums underline territorial claims in their displays. The museums promote national identities and heritage diplomacy, both to domestic and foreign visitors, drawing on carpets as artistic and ethnographic objects, or as commodities.
The conflict taps into ethnic and religious identities, linking to population movements around the South Caucasus in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Tensions between Turkic (who became the ethnic base of the Azerbaijan nation) and Armenian peoples were amplified, occasionally bursting into violence. In 1918-1920 the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan and the First Republic of Armenia were formed within the Soviet Union. The region of Nagorno–Karabakh, with a majority Armenian population, was placed as an autonomous republic within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic (AzSSR). After the second world war, nationalist aspirations rose, a pretext for violence at the fall of the Soviet Union. During glasnost (the Soviet policy of openness and transparency), Armenians explored the possibility of incorporating Nagorno–Karabakh into their republic, a move perceived by Azerbaijanis as representing a plan to take the land by force. Overt conflict followed from 1988 to 1991, involving ethnic cleansing on both sides. In 1991, Nagorno–Karabakh declared itself an independent republic. When a ceasefire to the First Karabakh War was agreed in 1994, Armenia claimed most of Nagorno–Karabakh and surrounding districts, which comprised around 20% territory of pre-1991 Azerbaijan.
Cultural identity and heritage are key fields driving disputes in a post-Soviet world. Carpet production is one form of cultural symbolism claimed as heritage by both sides, used to court international prestige, and then further tied to territorial claims. Since the nineteenth century, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have promoted ‘authentic’ carpets as valuable cultural commodities. Both sides claim carpets heralding from areas under territorial dispute as their own, bonding material culture to ethnic assertions and the placement of physical boundaries. The point is emphasised through the example of two carpet museums:
Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum, Baku
Carpets have been formally displayed in Azerbaijan since the 1950s, initially as a projection of ethnic identity within the Soviet state and later as an image of nationhood. Scholar and weaver Latif Karimov produced a taxonomy of 144 carpet types through four main regional groups. In 2014 the spectacular Baku Museum in the nation’s capital was inaugurated, reinforcing territorial claims through its arrangement of carpets in this taxonomy. The development of carpets is explained through an ethno-cultural history leading to the significance of carpets in present day Azerbaijan.
Left: Baku carpet museum, Azerbaijan (photo credit: Marco Monelli under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license). Right: Inside the Baku carpet museum, where the curve of the building are used to present exhibits. Photo credit: Presidential Press and Information Office under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license
Armenian Carpet Museum of Shushi
Opening in 2013, the Shushi Carpet Museum helps promote the city (known as Shusha in Azerbaijan) as the cultural centre of Nagorno–Karabakh in Armenian territory. The museum displays carpets from Armenia and Central Asian countries, but there is no mention of work from Azerbaijan. It looks at local Nagorno–Karabakh carpets, represented as Armenian, criticising Azerbaijan for cultural appropriation of its carpet heritage. When Azerbaijan captured the city in November 2020, up to two-thirds of the carpets were evacuated, with a plan to exhibit them in the Armenian capital of Yerevan but retaining the name of the Shushi Carpet Museum. Azerbaijan on the other hand released a statement calling for the return of the carpets under their cultural jurisdiction, stating that Armenians were only carpet traders and not weavers.
Left: Shushi/a carpet museum (photo credit: Գայանե Ծատրյան under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license). Right: Exhibits within Shushi/a carpet museum (photo credit: Գայանե Ծատրյան under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license)
The paper asserts that the acceptance of shared heritage over material culture such as carpets is essential in creating lasting peaceful solutions to conflicts such as that between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This runs counter to nationalist aims, which separate heritage along ethno-nationalist lines. The animosity shows no signs of abating after the 2020 conflict.