Ritualized Hostilities and Territorial Disputes
Why are some territorial provocations more escalatory than others? Territorial disputes are the most likely cause of war. Yet, some reoccurring provocations between states with territorial disputes neither entrapped politicians in wars nor spiraled the situation out of control. While existing literature on dispute escalation has focused on case-varying conditions such as regime type, geography, and international institutions, I introduce a new theory that focuses on time-varying interactions between the same pair of states, and bring further clarity to the question by studying the stabilizing effect of “ritualization.” Using the Dokdo/Takeshima issue between South Korea and Japan as my primary case, I leverage an event data analysis and a conjoint survey experiment. The results show that if a provocation has been regularly repeated by the actors—a pattern I term “ritualized”—its effect on future conflicts will diminish, and observers will become less likely to feel threatened. 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.