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Mar 19, 2014 | 09:33 GMT

6 mins read

China Expands Its Footprint in Tibet

Workers carry out track maintenance along a segment of the Qinghai-Tibet railway
(China Photos/Getty Images)

Recently announced plans to extend the Qinghai-Tibet railway to the southern Tibetan city of Xigaze, located less than 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the border with India, highlight the Chinese government's continuing efforts to tighten its control over the country's disparate and often restive borderlands. This process will likely gain momentum and significance in the coming years as Beijing grapples with potentially destabilizing social, economic and possibly political transformations in China's ethnic Han core.

The railway extension, which authorities expect to be operational by October, is ostensibly intended to improve access for Tibetans and other Buddhist pilgrims to the Beijing-installed Panchen Lama — the highest reincarnated lama after the Dalai Lama and the highest recognized by Beijing — whose official seat is in Xigaze. At the same time, authorities say the rail line will open the way for increased Chinese and foreign tourism throughout Tibet, thus increasing the region's economic integration with and reliance on the rest of China. The railway will also extend China's infrastructural (and therefore security) footprint deep into Tibet.

The extension plan taps into a number of overlapping themes in contemporary Chinese geopolitics. Fundamentally, it must be understood in the context of China's centuries-old struggle to gain and maintain control of buffer regions such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria. When controlled by Han China, these largely impassable regions form a shell around the country's vulnerable lowland core, providing strategic depth from other Eurasian population cores.

Historically, when Han China has been strong it has enjoyed greater control over these buffer regions. Authority over the borderlands, in turn, is necessary for a secure Han China. But these areas traditionally have been tenuously integrated into Han cultural and economic spheres of influence. Therefore, when Han China weakens, these regions are often the first to break away, precipitating the disintegration of the core itself. This is the basic paradox of China's buffer regions: They are most secure when a strong Han China needs their protection least, and they become vulnerable when a weak Han China needs their protection most.

With this historical pattern in mind, China's current leadership has moved aggressively in recent years to bolster Han economic and demographic dominance in the borderlands. Part of this strategy has involved physically binding the borderlands to the Han Core through extensive road, rail and other infrastructure development. For Beijing, the ultimate goal is to neutralize the inherited geopolitical dynamic between the core and peripheral regions by cementing Chinese control — physically, demographically, economically and militarily — over the borderlands.

Qinghai-Tibet Railway Extension

Qinghai-Tibet Railway Extension

The process has been slower in Tibet than in Manchuria, Inner Mongolia and even Xinjiang, which despite continued political and ethnic tensions is quickly emerging as a key component of China's national industrial supply chain, serving as a resource base and a transport corridor for energy and goods from Central Asia and beyond. Whatever its potential as a source of freshwater and hydropower, Tibet remains too distant and altitudinous to be exploited cost effectively, at least for now. Nonetheless, as the rail extension indicates, Beijing does not intend to neglect Tibet entirely, even if the region's geography militates against the degree of economic integration achieved in other buffer regions. For China's leaders, control of Tibet is a geopolitical imperative that cannot be taken for granted, especially as the Han Core enters yet another period of change and possible instability.

The India Problem

Tibet is most valuable to Beijing as a bulwark between Han China and Eurasia's other great population core: the Indo-Gangetic Plain, which runs adjacent to the Himalayas between northern Pakistan and Bangladesh. The region is home to an estimated 900 million people. It includes 600 million to 700 million people in India, as well as that country's political and industrial core. The plain is also far closer than the Chinese core to Tibet. The regional demographic balance helps explain Beijing's need to strengthen physical ties to Tibet, as well as the implications of a rail extension to Xigaze.

China has long viewed India's decision to host Tibet's government-in-exile, which is based in Dharmasala, Himachal Pradesh state, as a hostile gesture. Beijing believes it indicates a desire to challenge Chinese sovereignty in Tibet by encouraging, or at least implicitly condoning, Tibetan nationalism and separatism. In response, China has sought to reinforce the centrality of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, and Xigaze as centers of Tibetan religious and cultural life. Beijing hopes that extending the Qinghai-Tibet railway to connect the two cities will help solidify Xigaze as a major destination for tourists and religious pilgrims. This, in turn, would lend greater legitimacy and authority to the Beijing-approved Panchen Lama. (In 1995, China replaced the chosen Panchen Lama with its own appointee in a bid for greater sway over the Tibetan population. The Tibetan government-in-exile rejects his authority.)

Perhaps as important, the extension will bring China's rail system within 160 kilometers of the border with India's Sikkim state — one of three contested borders between the two countries. In recent years, China has moved aggressively to strengthen its infrastructural and security presence along the border with northeastern India's Arunachal Pradesh state, using Lhasa as a base of operations. By extending a rail line some 260 kilometers westward to Xigaze, China could more easily move security forces to the border with Sikkim as well. Regardless of whether Beijing overtly bolsters the security presence along this boundary, improved access to it will give Chinese security forces a strategic advantage and further shift the balance of power along the India-China border.

Waiting Out the Opposition

The Qinghai-Tibet railway extension should also be viewed in the context of changes within the Tibetan exile community. The first generation of post-revolution Tibetan exiles, including the Dalai Lama, will soon pass. Rising to replace it are younger ethnic Tibetans with no memory of life in their ancestral homeland and comparatively little interest in fighting for Tibetan independence or autonomy from China. In recent years, younger Tibetans in India have pressed the government-in-exile to allow them to apply for Indian citizenship. Exiled leaders have long resisted these calls, believing that giving some or all of the 100,000 displaced Tibetans in India citizenship would undermine Tibet's claim to independence. However, Lobsang Sangay, the leader of the government-in-exile, said in September that Tibetans in India would be allowed to pursue Indian citizenship, thus opening the way for the exiles to receive education and social services from the Indian government.

China largely welcomes the generational shift underway in the exile community. Beijing believes that as the older generation of exiled Tibetans is replaced, taking with it the memory of pre-1949 Tibet, opposition to Chinese control over the region will fade. More important, so will resistance to the Beijing-backed Panchen Lama. Some Chinese leaders may view the Indian citizenship issue with more suspicion, since it could deepen ties between India's Tibetan community and the Indian state. Nonetheless, as more Tibetans are subsumed into Indian society and institutions, Dharmasala's claim to represent Tibet will be diluted. In other words, China believes it can simply wait out external opposition to its claims over Tibet. In the meantime, projects like the rail extension to Xigaze will allow Beijing to secure its physical, economic and cultural authority over the region.

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