Tibet: An Ancient Threat to Modern China

A Tibetan man (L) in traditional clothing watches as Chinese paramilitary troops in riot gear march along the streets of Guomaying in northwest China's Qinghai province, in a vast region on the Tibetan Plateau known as Amdo.

A Tibetan man (L) in traditional clothing watches as Chinese paramilitary troops in riot gear march along the streets of Guomaying in northwest China's Qinghai province, in a vast region on the Tibetan Plateau known as Amdo. Getty Images/AFP/Frederic J. Brown

By Thomas Vien | Stratfor

ON THE WEB, 16 July 2015


  • After the Dalai Lama dies, groups within the Tibetan exile community dissatisfied with the Dalai Lama’s moderate position may adopt a militant stance toward China.
  • China will attempt to mitigate the geopolitical threat Tibet poses to the Belt and Road Initiative[1] by intensifying the domestic security presence in Tibet.
  • China will strive to integrate India into the Belt and Road Initiative to improve its leverage over the Tibetan exile community.


On July 10, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, celebrated his 80th birthday during a visit to New York City. Among those in attendance was Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the Obama administration. Predictably, the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed strong opposition, urging the United States to stop its perceived support for Tibetan independence and to “undo any harm done” by a senior U.S. official meeting with the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese have called a “devil with a human’s face.” Although to many outsiders this seems like an overzealous response, China has good reason to be anxious about what it sees as a rival state’s support for an uncooperative Tibetan leader.

Mainstream media tends to understand China’s strong grip on Tibet as a function of China’s communist preference for authoritarian rule, driven by intangible factors like nationalism or Han chauvinism. Although these factors are indeed in play, they give an incomplete understanding of why Tibet is important to China. The Tang Dynasty (618-907), the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty (1645-1911) and the Nationalist government (1927-1949) all fought to either dominate or pacify Tibet. This history suggests that China’s need to control Tibet is geopolitical and not unique to any single Chinese government or to Han rule.

Stratfor has long emphasized that China must maintain control of its non-Han border regions in order to protect its heartland, an imperative clearly at work in Tibet. If Tibet were beyond China’s control, it could threaten key lines of communication to the rest of Eurasia as well as the security of China proper, either independently or by enlisting hostile foreign powers. As China attempts to build up new industrial centers in inland provinces and set up trade routes on the model of the Tang-era Silk Road, the pacification of Tibet and the control of its exile population will become even more important. Examining the Tang Dynasty, which President Xi Jinping has selected as his vision of a powerful China connected to the world by vibrant trade corridors, and its relationship with Tibet sheds light on the geopolitical problem an autonomous or even restive Tibet poses for modern China.

Map - the Silk Road

The ancient Silk Road was many routes connecting East and West, primarily for trade. image: stratfor.com

A history of conflict

The Tang Dynasty was a cosmopolitan golden age for China’s culture and arts, as well as a high point of Chinese military and economic might. China was an empire in the truest sense, with a colonial presence in non-Han areas spanning the Mongolian steppe to the north, Vietnam to the south, the Korean Peninsula to the east and Central Asia to the west. At that time, China’s center of gravity was not on its eastern seaboard as it is today but in northwestern China in what is modern Shaanxi Province. This made securing the frontier zones west of Shaanxi crucial to both protecting the Chinese heartland and controlling the Silk Road, a network of trade routes running westward from the Tang capital Chang’an (modern Xian) through Central Asia, Persia and Europe. However, another power challenged China’s control of the western frontier: the Tang Dynasty’s most powerful foe, the Tibetan Empire. The two empires fought frequent wars to dominate the Silk Road between the early 7th century and the mid-9th century.

Rooted in this experience, the Tang conception of Tibet was very different from the modern Western vision of a land of peaceful Lamaist monks. Tang chroniclers describe the Tibetans as horsemen encased from head to toe in chain mail that rendered them impervious to most attacks and underscored their warlike nature by noting that they carried swords even in times of peace. While the Chinese were no strangers to aggressive non-Han enemies, the Tibetans were different, in that they had a well-organized state with administrative institutions as capable as China’s. This made them much less vulnerable to political and military disruption than the Turkic khanates that were the Tang’s earliest foreign threats. The Tibetans were able to compete with the Chinese as peers.

The fierce Tibetans were assisted in no small part by favorable geography: The high Tibetan Plateau, 4,500 meters (2.7 miles) above sea level, made Tibet nearly unassailable from the Chinese-controlled lowlands. Even at the height of the Tang Empire’s military might, the Chinese were never able to advance beyond Tibet’s periphery and seriously threaten its heartland. The Tibetans, on the other hand, could enter the lowlands with comparative ease. The Tibetan Empire controlled the entirety of the Tibetan Plateau — not only the areas that make up the modern Tibet Autonomous Region but also most of modern Qinghai Province and the western parts of Sichuan Province. To these original lands, the Tibetans would add their conquests in the Himalayas, Pamir Mountains (in modern Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan), Xinjiang and eventually much of northwestern China at the upper reaches of the Yellow River around the Ordos Loop.

The Tibetan Plateau’s strategic location enabled the Tibetans to threaten Chinese interests at multiple points. East of the plateau, the Tibetans menaced the Sichuan Basin — not a part of the Silk Road, but an economically productive part of China. From Tibet’s northeastern borderlands, the Tibetans could take aim at the Silk Road as it passed through the Gansu Corridor, a strip of oases in northwestern China between the Tibetan Plateau and the Gobi Desert. Sallying north from the plateau or from bases in the Pamir Mountains, the Tibetans could attack the Tang Empire’s hold over its colonial possessions in Xinjiang’s Tarim Basin. Control over Gansu and Xinjiang was necessary to secure the lucrative Silk Road trade and deny it to the enemy. An illustration of the fabulous wealth found along the Silk Road emerges from a Tibetan record of the capture of the Chinese fortress of Guazhou, in modern Gansu: “The many riches of the Chinese being taken out to the Western Regions, after having been amassed in Guazhou, were all confiscated by the Tibetans … even the ordinary people joined in covering themselves with good Chinese silks.”

At the height of the Tang Dynasty, its conflict with the Tibetan Empire was one for economic advantage, not a fight for survival. However, when the power of the dynasty’s central government deteriorated, Tibet became a threat to the Chinese heartland. To check the Tibetans, the Chinese restructured their military from a system concentrating military power in the capital to a system of frontier commands with enormous standing armies, shifting the balance of power from the central government to regional commanders. In the mid-8th century, a rebellion led by a powerful military governor nearly brought the Tang Empire to its knees. In the ensuing civil war, the Chinese Silk Road garrisons in the Gansu Corridor and Xinjiang were withdrawn, and the Tibetans seized most Chinese possessions in the western regions. The front line moved within about 240 kilometers (149 miles) of the capital, and the Tibetans posed an existential threat to the Tang Dynasty until political infighting brought about the collapse of the Tibetan Empire during the mid-9th century.

In modern context

Although China’s struggle against Tibet was most intense in the Tang Dynasty, future Chinese governments saw the conflict as an indication of China’s need to bind the Tibetan Plateau to the central government’s will. As long as China needs to protect its western reaches, it will use all means, military and diplomatic, to prevent the emergence of an autonomous Tibet that could threaten China’s western flank or enlist foreign powers to do so. Acting on this imperative, the Manchu Qing Dynasty established a protectorate over Tibet in the 18th century, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s weak nationalist government waged political and military campaigns to curtail Tibetan autonomy, and Mao Zedong’s communist forces conquered Tibet in the 1950s shortly after establishing the People’s Republic of China.

Under Xi, this geopolitical imperative has become more critical. Western China is gaining significance for Xi’s strategic and economic plans. One of the crown jewels in Xi’s grand strategy is the Belt and Road Initiative, a strategy meant to facilitate inland industrialization and secure China against economic disruption through the construction of six trade corridors modeled on the Tang Dynasty’s Silk Road. Many of these corridors are centered on inland rail lines and highways that roughly trace the original Silk Road caravan routes. These are the same areas that the Tibetans were able to seize from the Chinese in antiquity.

The six modern 'Belt and Road' trade corridors

"The six modern 'Belt and Road' trade corridors.[1] image: stratfor.com

Changes in military and logistics technologies have eroded the geographic advantage the Tibetans enjoyed in the past, enabling the Chinese to control Tibet to a degree unimaginable to their Tang Dynasty predecessors. In recent years, China has expanded rail links in Tibet that have reinforced Beijing’s control over the region and allowed China’s security presence to move deeper into Tibet. But while it is extremely doubtful that Tibet could secede from China and quickly become a military power capable of capturing territory from the Chinese, Tibet is geographically well-positioned to disrupt China’s overland trade routes. This disruption could come from restive elements of the Tibetan exile community.

The pro-Tibetan movement’s uncertain future

Divisions along spiritual and political lines have put the direction of the largely India-based Tibetan exile community in question. One of the chief debates within the community concerns whether the pro-Tibetan movement is best served by continued adherence to the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent “middle way” approach to China. Some groups within the movement, such as the nationalist Tibetan Youth Congress, argue for taking a stronger stand for Tibetan independence.

The octogenarian Dalai Lama is the one person able to provide unified leadership to the fragmented Tibetan exile community. So far, he has kept the hawkish pro-Tibetan voices in check, but there is no guarantee that his strategy will continue to prevail after he dies. The Dalai Lama can mitigate some uncertainties around his succession by forgoing reincarnation (thus denying Beijing the opportunity to pick his successor) or passing his spirit and the mantle of leadership to a key supporter or group of supporters through the Tibetan Buddhist practice of “emanation.” However, whatever the Dalai Lama’s arrangements, it will be difficult for any successor to attract the same level of support from foreign sponsors that have identified the pro-Tibetan movement with the personality of the Dalai Lama. Furthermore, in the absence of a leader able to command the same level of support as the Dalai Lama, the unified movement could split along ideological lines.

Left unchecked by a strong leader and long frustrated with the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent approach, the exile community’s radical elements could become more aggressive. Difficulties in attracting funding could make Tibetan exile groups relatively more dependent on state sponsorship and give rise to competitive dynamics as the disparate groups vie for support. These dynamics would favor better-organized (and potentially bolder) groups. Beijing is concerned that China’s strategic competitors, such as the United States and India, could recruit these Tibetan groups to rouse their brethren across the border into militancy in an effort to destabilize China. This worry is not baseless; the CIA trained Tibetan exiles as insurgents to do exactly that during the Cold War.

Map - the Silk Road

Modern nation boundaries, areas of ancient Tibetan and Tang empires, and the modern Silk Road. image: stratfor.com

To protect its Belt and Road[1] corridors, China has mixed increased domestic security and surveillance with greater efforts to secure the cooperation of foreign governments in pressuring potential extremist groups abroad. For example, in order to increase security in Xinjiang, Beijing sent domestic security chief Meng Jianzhu to negotiate improved law enforcement cooperation agreements with Central Asian governments (an unspoken objective of which is controlling the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a Uighur militant group). Before that, China pushed for the repatriation of Uighurs abroad — a move that prompted Thailand to extradite 109 alleged Uighur jihadists on July 9.

China will apply this approach to Tibet as well. Although China already subjects Tibet to an intense domestic security presence, the exile community lies beyond China’s reach. Therefore, China will need to persuade India to impose stronger restrictions on the activities and movements of Tibetans in exile. This will be a challenge; India has a much larger economy than most of the states linked into China’s Belt and Road strategy, making India relatively less dependent on China economically. Moreover, India regards the Tibetan exile community as an asset in its underlying competition with China. Therefore, while the Dalai Lama is still alive, China will need to bring India aboard the Belt and Road Initiative and build infrastructure links that integrate India’s economy further with China (such as the planned extension of the Qinghai-Tibet railway into Nepal, scheduled for completion in 2020). Deeper ties could make India more receptive to China’s preferences. The Dalai Lama claims that he will live to the age of 113, but China cannot count on having that much time to neutralize the potential Tibetan threat to its new Silk Road.

1 Belt and Road Initiative: A strategy meant to facilitate inland industrialization and secure China against economic disruption through the construction of six trade corridors modeled on the Tang Dynasty's Silk Road.

About the author

Lead Analyst: Thomas Vien
Graphic Design: Mark Blackwell
Production Editor: Robin Blackburn

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