Geopolitical Importance of Tibet

By Thubten Samphel
September 13, 2012

Among scholars and strategic thinkers in Asia and elsewhere, there is a new recognition of the enormous geopolitical and environmental importance of Tibet to the continent which is home to nearly half of the Earth’s population.  This recognition is driven home by China’s stunning economic growth for the last more than 30 years. It is no accident that China’s dynamic economic growth coincided with Beijing’s discovery of Tibet as a vast and till now untapped source of minerals, water and energy. The new appreciation of the importance of the Tibetan plateau also grows out of Chinese scientists’ discovery that the plateau is the world’s Third Pole and the ‘Water Tower of Asia’. In addition, Chinese geologists have identified more than 130 minerals in Tibet ‘with significant reserves of the world’s deposits of uranium, chromite, boron, lithium, borax, and iron.”

What China does with Tibet’s natural resources is its business, as long as this is done responsibly and sustainably, although there is little evidence of this. Already, there are street protests in Tibet where Tibetans complain bitterly of rampant mining activities that pollute river waters that harm the health of humans and animals. However, what China does with the waters of the 10 major river systems that originate from Tibet and sustain the life of about 47 per cent of the world’s total human population is another matter. From a problem confined to the Tibetan people alone it becomes a pan-Asian problem.

What are China’s real intentions of damming, and diverting rivers from the south to the north and the likely consequences of such actions on downstream nations?  “Anxieties about China’s intentions were inflamed in 2005 by the publication of the provocatively titled Tibet’s Water Will Save China. Though it was not an official statement of policy, it was written by a former officer of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Li Ling, and its wide circulation gave it sufficient stature in Indian eyes to merit careful scrutiny. Ling’s enthusiasm for diverting Tibet’s rivers, including the Brahmaputra, to northern China to alleviate the acute water crisis there fitted enough of the facts to set alarm bells ringing.”

A satellite’s-eye-view of the Tibetan Plateau. Image from NASA’s Terra satellite. Photo credit- NASA

Damming of rivers and the proposed river diversion schemes in Tibet come in the wake of the looming water crisis in Asia. Experts say water is poised to overtake oil as the world’s scarcest vital resource. China’s plans for the various uses of waters of rivers originating from Tibet are intensifying the heated debate about their likely consequences for downstream nations.  Already there is the talk of water wars. “The protection of the sources of water demands that no party withdraw or divert water in such a way as to affect the ecosystems … Although intrastate water -sharing disputes have become rife in several Asian countries – from India and Pakistan to Southeast Asia and China – the potential inter-country conflict over shared water resources should be of greater concern.”

Central to all these discussions is Tibet. The environmental  importance of Tibet as the maker of the Asian monsoon and as the retainer of the largest concentration of glaciers outside of the two Poles that feed the life-giving waters of the 10 major river systems that sustain millions downstream are recent discoveries. However, Tibet’s geopolitical importance was highlighted during the days of the British Raj. Its geopolitical importance is based on its mass and bulk, and the reason why China is in Tibet in the first place. Tibet is the world’s highest and largest plateau, covering an area of 2.5 million square kilometres, with an average elevation of more than 4,000 metres thrusting up above sea level. The plateau snakes, snarls and stretches across 2,400 kilometres from east to west and 1,448 kilometres from north to south.  Its entire southern rim is flanked by the Himalayas, the word’s highest mountain chain.

In any age, even in our nuclear age, such a landmass constitutes a formidable buffer or barrier for any power operating beyond Tibet.  Though Tibet itself posed no existential threat to China, there were periods in history when the Tibetans burst out of the plateau and wrested the prosperous oasis towns of Khotan, Kucha, Karashar and Kashgar in Turkestan from Tang China around 666. “The Tibetan Empire ruled the Southern Route of the Silk Road and most of Gansu Corridor, including Khotan, Lob-nor, and Dunhuang, for over fifty years from the late 8th to the mid 9th centuries.”  In 763 Tibetan troops captured the Chinese imperial capital Ch’ang-an (Xian of present-day China) and put a new emperor on the throne.

This period of Tibetan military activities outside the plateau, sustained by a line of energetic kings, lasted at the most for three hundred years. The last great king of Tibet’s imperial age was Tri Relpachen, who, while concluding a peace treaty with China (821-822), made sure that Buddhism made its greatest penetration into his domain during his reign.  After Tri Relpachen, the Tibetan empire collapsed and Tibet disintegrated into smaller and constantly feuding kingdoms. Meanwhile, Tibet’s successful incorporation of Buddhism as one of the core values of the Tibetan people tempered the martial instincts of the Tibetan people with Buddhist quietism and the contemplative way of life. Since then Tibet by itself posed no threat to China.

All this changed with the steady takeover of the Indian subcontinent by British colonialism. This fact brought home to China the geopolitical importance of Tibet.  Western dominance of the world then threw up two empires competing for spheres of influence.  The Great Game, or the Tournament of Shadows, was a strategic rivalry between the British and Russian empires for the mastery of Central Asia.  “From the British perspective, the Russian Empire’s expansion into Central Asia threatened to destroy the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire, India. The British feared that Afghanistan would become a staging post for a Russian invasion of India.”

By the 1890s, Central Asian states were one after the other made into Russian vassals. “With Central Asia in the Tsar’s grip, the Great Game now shifted eastward to China, Mongolia and Tibet. In 1904, the British invaded Lhasa, a pre-emptive strike against Russian intrigues and secret meetings between the 13th Dalai Lama’s envoy and Tsar Nichoals II.” The 13th Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia and China.

The invading British army found no evidence of any Russian influence in Tibet. However, the greatest impact of the British invasion of Tibet was felt in Manchu China. Throughout its history, China faced threats from the marauding nomads of the vast, open grasslands of Mongolia and Manchuria who usurped the Chinese imperial throne and established their own dynasties. In the 19th century, China faced a new threat from beyond the oceans in the form of Western colonial powers, which, joined by fast-rising Japan, exacted humiliating trade and territorial concessions from a crippled Manchu empire.  In view of the constant threats to China from the grasslands of Mongolia and now this new threat from beyond the oceans, China continued to look at Tibet as an effective buffer and its “secure backyard.” The British breach of the buffer disabused Manchu China of this notion.

With the breach of the buffer, an enfeebled Manchu China was convinced that the British might mount an invasion of China through Tibet. The only way to prevent this from happening was to take control of Tibet. As one Manchu official put it, “Tibet is the buttress on our national frontiers – the hand, as it were, which protects the face.”

The man selected to invade Tibet was general Zhao Erfeng who occupied eastern Tibet in 1906 and marched to Lhasa in 1910, “only to find that the Dalai Lama had fled, this time to India, together with his leading ministers.”

Manchu China’s invasion of Tibet brought about the collapse of the key operating principle of Central Asian diplomacy. The priest-patron relationship, which Tibet developed with the Mongols and the Manchus, both of whom embraced Buddhism, was based on the priests of Tibet providing spiritual ministry to the emperor of the day who in turn provided protection and security to the realm of his priest.  This form of diplomacy, or what this writer calls ‘Tiblomacy’, never anticipated the possibility that the protector would one day turn on his protected.

When this happened, Tibet turned to British India for protection. “Although the British had precipitated the trouble, they continued to look the other way, until the Chinese Revolution of 1911 enabled the Tibetans to shake off once and for all their unwanted connection with the Manchus.”

When the news of the October 1911 revolution led by Sun Yat-sen reached Lhasa, the Manchu garrison in the Tibetan capital mutinied. The Tibetan government expelled the troops to China through India. The 13th Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa in January 1913. He issued a decree to all Tibet, which came to be considered by Tibetan people as a formal declaration of Tibetan independence.

Meanwhile the 1911 Chinese revolution which started with much promise descended into warlordism and a dilapidating civil war that invited Japanese invasion and occupation. The Chinese civil war ended in 1949 when Mao Zedong and his communist comrades in arms expelled the nationalist Chinese to the island of Taiwan. Mao Zedong promised to ‘liberate” Tibet and the island of Hainan soon.

Before invading Tibet, Mao Zedong wanted an insurance. He consulted Stalin. Here’s the gist of the conversation between the two dictators as recounted in Mao: The Unknown Story.

When he saw Stalin on 23 January 1950, he asked if the Soviet air force could transport supplies to Chinese troops ‘currently preparing for an attack on Tibet.’ Stalin’s reply was: ‘It’s good that you are preparing to attack. The Tibetans need to be subdued …’  Stalin also advised flooding Tibet and other border regions with Han Chinese: ‘Since ethnic Chinese make up no more than 5 per cent of Xinjiang’s population, the percentage of ethnic Chinese should be brought to 30 … In fact, all the border territories should be populated by Chinese…’ This is exactly what the Chinese Communist regime then proceeded to do.

The acquisition of the entire Tibetan Plateau by the new Chinese communist empire gave China extraordinary strategic depth in luring potential intruders and repulsing them and enormous military reach in operating offensives on multiple fronts and sustaining them. “Tibet was vital to Chinese strategic calculations for the simple reason that the Himalayas presented by far the best vantage point for China’s defensive or offensive needs.” Complementing this advantage was another factor. Despite its spatial vastness, because of its sparse population stuck in material backwardness, Tibet was not a significant market. However, Tibet was spiritually and culturally potent, the centre of a distinct culture, a magnet for the best minds of the Tibetan Buddhist civilization, “stretching from Ladakh in the west to the borders of the Chinese provinces of Szechuan and Yunnan in the east, from the Himalayas in the south to the Mongolian steppes and the vast waste of northern Tibet…”

With China’s invasion and occupation of Tibet, the world lost an immense landmass of enormous strategic and environmental importance and an ancient and rich culture of vital relevance to how human beings should lead their lives. The wonder was not how Tibet was lost but how the world let it happen.  “Civilization of the Tibetan people is disappearing before our very eyes, and apart from a few gentle protests here and there the rest of the world lets it go without protest and without regret.”

The world’s apathy is best explained by Tsering Shakya:

There was a general consensus that there was nothing the UN could do to help Tibet. The Americans hoped that a debate would serve as anti-Communist propaganda, but they were not prepared to take any action to place it on the agenda. Both Britain and India shared the     view that any UN resolution should be limited to a statement calling on both sides to settle their differences by peaceful means because ‘stronger resolution (e.g. calling on China to withdraw her forces from Tibet and to restore the status quo) would merely be ignored by China’ and therefore ‘the UN would lose prestige.’

The world’s indifference then to the plight of the Tibetan people sealed Tibet’s fate. The loss of Tibet is obviously a loss for the Tibetan people.  But with a our new understanding of the role played by Tibet, either as a primary shaper of Asian monsoon patterns or the source of water for much of Asia or the home to significant mineral reserves , the Tibetan people’s loss is also Asia’s loss. With the possibility that China might turn the tap off in Tibet leaving most of Asia high and dry, the people of Asia cannot continue to adopt the attitude that Tibet is the Tibetan people’s problem and not a challenge for the whole of Asia. Damming of rivers to regulate their flow, serious plans to divert river waters from the south to the north, increasing mining of minerals precariously close to river banks and the potential for massive pollution of river waters that flow to the rest of Asia make Tibet a pressing issue for all of Asia to take up with China.  To convince China to see the wisdom of allowing the Tibetans to exercise real autonomy is also to ensure that Asia as a whole continues to prosper. Brahma Chellaney, a leading Indian strategic thinker and analyst, succinctly advances this argument. He writes, “The Tibet issue has been presented more often than not in the international literature in political or cultural terms, with the Chinese government and ethnic Tibetans supposed to be the principal players. But the Tibet issue is much larger and more fundamental: It is about Asia’s water and climate security and its ecological interests. It is also about vital resources. Fundamentally, it is about securing Asia’s future.”

However, for Asia there is a way out to solve its water problems with China. In 2008 in Beijing the two envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, handed to the Chinese government a copy of Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People.21 This memorandum contains the core demand of the Tibetan people, which is real autonomy under a single administration for all the Tibetan people. This demand, which is within the scope of the constitution of the People’s Republic of China, was rejected by the Chinese government.

The rejection of the latest Tibetan proposal for autonomy should come as no surprise. No power which thinks its holds all the cards at the negotiating table would ever make even the slightest concession.  China’s is the world’s second largest economy with military might to match. Some scholars predict that soon China might displace the United States as a global power.  Though shaken by the ongoing Bo Xilai scandal and embarrassed by the great escape of a blind dissident lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, to the American embassy in Beijing, China’s political system seems stable. With these advantages, there is no compelling incentive for China to make any concessions to a disgruntled group of people inhabiting China’s vast imperial periphery.

However, what should come as a surprise is that these talks were held at all. Tibetan exiles’ contacts with Beijing from 1979 to 1993 and from 2002 to 2010 make fascinating reading. Never in China’s long and distinguished history have the representatives of a group of ‘barbarians’ been allowed to sit in the imperial capital to demand their just dues. That the talks took place at all means that China wants something from the Tibetans which China does not have: legitimacy.  It is for the Tibetan people to give or withhold from Beijing ‘the mandate of heaven’ to rule Tibet. As long as their reasonable demands are not satisfactorily addressed by China, the Tibetan people will refuse to give Beijing  legitimacy for its presence in Tibet, the latest evidence of this is the more than 51 fiery deaths, engulfing  eastern Tibet, that echoed and re-echoed calls for freedom for Tibet. As long as China does not have this legitimacy, it would want to talk with the Tibetans.

Another factor that strengthens the case of Asia collectively pressing China to address the grievances of the Tibetan people is a spiritual one. Tibet and much of Asia have Buddhism in common as one of the cores of their value system. Restoring the Tibetan people to their traditional role of a responsible steward of the ecologically fragile plateau, which they have managed to do so sustainably for thousands of years is in the best interest of Asia. When they are restored to their traditional role of being the guardian of the Tibetan Plateau, the Tibetan people will base the management of the Plateau on Buddhist principles. They will regard the Tibetan Plateau as “a zone of peace, based on the principles of non-violence, compassion and protection of the natural environment, deriving inspiration from the Buddhist principles of compassion, justice and equality … Future Tibet will strive for balance and harmony – both a balance between human and human and between human and the environment – realising the fact that everything is interconnected … This vision incorporates an attitude of sharing, harmony and co-operation between the people.”

All of Asia speaking to China on behalf of Tibet accords with the best thinking prevailing in China today.  Some of the leadings lights of China, including Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese Nobel Laureate, Fang Lizhi, the late physicist, considered one of the Three Voices of Freedom in China and many other public intellectuals have come in support for the Middle-Way Policy as articulated by the Dalai Lama. Given China’s current fluid political situation in which the premier of the nation is calling for the absolute necessity for political reform, these voices of moderation and tolerance of China’s nascent civil society will shape China’s attitude towards Tibet.  For Asia to demand that China put in place a better treatment of the Tibetan people and let them manage the Tibetan Plateau sustainably and efficiently is in line with the forward-looking thinking in China. This act also amounts to Asia demanding that its tap in Tibet not be turned off.

*Thubten Samphel is the director of the Tibet Policy Institute, a think tank of the Central Tibetan Administration. Views expressed here are the author’s own. They do not reflect those of the Central Tibetan Administration. This paper was presented at the conference on Tibet and Taiwan: Prospects and Challenges held at the Sarah College of Higher Tibetan Studies on 12 September 2012

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