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There are many disputes that appear pointless in my eyes. These are disputes that seem to have an easy resolution, but which the countries involved continue to fight over.

A couple examples:

  • Taiwan and China. Taiwan is now its own country. It has a different form of government and Beijing doesn't really have a say in its internal affairs. Compared to Taiwan, mainland China is huge. Why don't they just agree to go their own way? If China really believed that Taiwan was still part of China, they would have invaded a long time ago. A huge country such as China would not allow a group to claim sovereignty of an island inside their country.

  • South Korea and Japan over the Liancourt Rocks. This is even more pointless than the Taiwan/China issue. The rocks are uninhabited and practically useless. Why can't one country just give them up or come to an agreement on them being "international"?

  • North Korea and South Korea. Why can't North Korea be recognized as a sovereign country? It has been over 50 years since the Korean War. Yes, technically it didn't end, but in reality it's over. If large-scale fighting broke out, no one would call is just the "Korean War". Most likely it would be the "Second Korean War".

What reason would a country have for keeping these disputes open?

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    Besides my answer, it seems that you think that the People's Republic of China could conquer Republic of China (Taiwan) easily if it wanted, but Taiwan is quite far from PRC, the logistics of a sea invasion are very complicated (specially if the USA steps in) and Taiwan has a significant army. It is not simply that PRC does not want to occupy Taiwan, it would be also very risky if doable at all. – SJuan76 Jul 26 at 22:20
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    Regarding your third point, North Korea is recognized as a sovereign country. It's a member of the UN and everything. – Harry Johnston Jul 26 at 23:45
  • I don't really understand what is meant by pointless? Maybe one could elaborate a bit more on that. Gaining territory was for a very long time a major driver of politics. – Trilarion Jul 27 at 6:01
  • @Trilarion maybe for a long time politics was driven by a pointless pursuit. It would be interesting to explore why it was a major driver of politics, though this question doesn't seem to be the best venue for that analysis. – phoog Jul 28 at 17:36
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What reason would a country have for keeping these disputes open?

While I agree with Denis de Bernardy's reason for the origin of the conflict, I would think of it the other way around... what reason would a country have for closing these disputes?

If the leadership of some country came to renounce some claim:

  • it would amount to recognizing that the country position was wrong all along, and that any sacrifices and efforts taken towards the claim (including wars) were futile.

  • it would amount that the country has no effective means of enforcing its position. Recognizing your own country's weakness is something that never looks good on a government.

  • it would give the internal opposition an argument against the government, accussing them of treason and allowing the opposition to claim that, if they were in power, they would move forward to solve the conflict by achieving the claims.

  • it gives the country a bargaining chip towards the other country; for example "agree to this trade deal in our favour and we will keep quiet about our claims for the time being".

  • in times of crisis, a foreign enemy/rival can be useful in getting the people to rally behind the government, and such a conflict give an "already ready" rival.

  • in most situations, it does not actually commit the government to any other action that keeping the status quo. So you can keep your claims while otherwise keeping a relatively friendly relationship with the other country, if it is convenient.

The main drawbacks is that the government may lose face if the other country acts to assert its rights; for example if two countries claim an uninhabited island and one of the country begins building a base on it, the lack of answer would be an embarassment for the government and an answer could risk escalation.

And as a side note, there is the issue of survivorship bias: you are most aware of the long running conflicts because there is little talk about those conflicts that have been already solved; for example Great Britain and Portugal returning Hong Kong and Macau to China, Germany's border with Poland... That makes it look like as if those conflicts never were resolved at all, but that is not the case.

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The two main drivers are nationalism and economics

  • Taiwan/China: Compare with Alsace-Lorraine. (It's not exactly similar, but with the US backing Taiwan it's not like China can just send troops to bring the seditious island back in line. While you're at it, also notice that there's no Poland on the article's map of Germany.)

  • South Korea/Japan over the Liancourt Rocks: The rocks come with fishing rights, and possible resources on or under the ocean floor. Economics is usually enough to keep interests high for a long time, and can even revive interests when the situation evolves (see e.g. Navassa Island).

  • North/South Korea: Compare with the German reunification.

Sometimes it's just spite or plain vengefulness. The 1870-1871 war between France and Germany ended with the latter spanking the former and demanding 5 billion Francs of reparation (which then was about 20% of GDP). In modern dollar equivalent, that would be like asking a bit over 4 trillion dollars of war reparations to the US. The reason Bismarck asked for that much was that Napoleon spanked Prussia earlier that century and demanded 20% of GDP worth of war reparations as part of the peace deal.

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    There are also more 'friendly' examples, such as Hans Island, between Canada and Greenland/Denmark. Also leads to another main driver for it being ongoing: Not being important enough to actually resolve. – TheLuckless Jul 26 at 20:57
  • @TheLuckless And much less "friendly" ones, such as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. – JAB Jul 26 at 21:32
  • Slight correction: The Franco Prussian war reparations were tied to the per/capita reparations that France had demanded from Prussia earlier. And since France managed to pay it off in 4 years, the economy had grown enough from the earlier reparations that it wasn't a terribly high burden. – Eugene Jul 27 at 0:44
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I am going to take a contrarian view to both, correct, answers.

We don't have the historical experience, yet, to value the payoff of doing the hard thing, making peace. And, in some cases, peace is not really important as there is little actual hardship going on.

Nation-states with at least a pretend-veneer of local popularity, rather than feudality, are relatively new. So is insurgency warfare theory. Combine both and we haven't yet really grokked the cost of subjugating people who don't want to be subjugated (hint: look at counter-insurgency doctrine, Malaysia's still trotted out as best-of-breed).

Still...

The PM of Ethiopia is enjoying massive popularity in Ethiopia for making peace. But he's also the bomb in Eritrea.

The Good Friday agreements look obvious, in hindsight. Not at the time.

These are 2 cases of massive payoffs to governments/politicians that participated in making a peace that "couldn't happen".

Not sure any of your 3 examples really match what I am saying. Taiwan and "various islands" don't have much spilled blood so far. So it's easy to keep a simmering low cost/no deaths dispute from being solved. Taiwan is a prestige project for China, but hasn't really gotten anyone killed.

Maybe, maybe, SK vs NK. NK peace would be a good thing but the NK government is a bit off the charts.

Palestine or Kashmir along with would be a better match. If Ethiopia/Eritrea and N. Ireland could be fixed, and prove hugely popular, and to some extent Lebanon, then I believe there are strong potential popular undercurrents to just stop posturing/fighting in cases where no one is likely to prevail.

An even better low-hanging fruit would be the Falklands/Maldives. Argentinians can't be too thrilled with a war started and lost by was their military Junta at the time. And the UK probably would be happy to scale back the logistical drain of supporting very remote islands cut off from the nearest South American landmass.

So there are lots of reasons to think that courageous peace-making might work out just fine for politicians.

The problem is that the political payoff has rarely been demonstrated to date, and both answers above are quite convincing, because they correspond to existing experience.

The economics can be fudged around, to some extent. Australia had a long and not particularly glorious feud with Papua New Guinea about an oil field between the 2. Eventually got figured out.

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