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Thursday, Nov. 9, 2000

Chinese irredentism threatens Asia -- and may come back to haunt Beijing


NEW DELHI -- The 50th anniversary of China's annexation of Tibet passed unnoticed by the world, reflecting the awe and respect that a rising China inspires and helplessness over the plight of the Tibetans. China's rise in an Asia at a time when Russia has declined, Japan has lost its economic sheen, ASEAN has slid into new woes and India remains mired in internal and subcontinental troubles has spurred exaggerated notions about Chinese potentialities. The general belief is that China's power will continue to grow in a linear manner.

Such thinking has not only hampered assessments of China's intentions and capabilities, but in the past decade has also encouraged the use of a more lenient set of international standards to measure Beijing's track record on human rights, trade and weapons proliferation. In the process, Tibet has fallen off the international political agenda.

Those projecting the future from current trends are not taking into account the fact that once the communist regime in Beijing falls, China will be a messy state. The collapse of communism could happen sooner than many expect. Far from a dead issue, Tibet will remain China's Achilles heel.

The Chinese Communist Party began nibbling at Tibet soon after taking power in 1949. On Oct. 7, 1950, 40,000 Chinese began an eight-pronged operation to take over the country, crushing the tiny Tibetan resistance force. Within weeks, Tibet, a vast state as large as West Europe, was under Chinese control.

Half a century of Chinese rule has changed the face of what Frank Capra romanticized as Shangri-La in his 1937 movie classic, "Lost Horizon." Today, culturally ravaged and economically swamped by Han Chinese, Tibet has been abandoned by the rest of the world. Tibetans, however, have kept up nonviolent resistance.

The Han nationalism that the communists kindled in the countryside to win the long war against Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party was later used to expand the frontiers of China. The fall of Tibet whetted the desire of the communists to create a China whose geographical reach would be the high point in Han history.

Once China consolidated its control of Tibet, it began surreptitiously to encroach on Indian territory in the Himalayas even as it professed friendship with India. Claiming that those areas were historically linked with Tibet, China then waged war against India in 1962. China's capture of Indian Himalayan tracts and its present aggressive posture on Taiwan and creeping assertiveness in the South China Sea are rooted in the same nationalism that has helped the communists stay in power.

With 60 percent of its territory comprising homelands of ethnic minorities, China has come a long way since the Great Wall represented the outer perimeter of the Han empire. Yet the redrawing of frontiers has not ended, as is evident from China's irredentist territorial claims and maritime ambitions. Its maps show India's Arunachal Pradesh state, Taiwan, the Spratly and Senkaku islands and Taiwan as Chinese territory. Another Indian Himalayan state, Sikkim, is shown as independent.

When Chinese troops marched into the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, they eliminated what had been a 2,000-year-old buffer between the Indian and Chinese civilizations. No event has so profoundly affected India's security as Tibet's annexation. That brought Chinese forces to India's borders for the first time and created a land corridor between China and Pakistan.

Tibet was a trigger for many other Chinese actions and the strategic implications of its occupation will continue to reverberate in Asia for decades to come. The method of Tibet's absorption -- aggressive claims presented as facts, steady but quiet encroachment and creation of new realities -- was replicated by China when it annexed one-fifth of Kashmir from India and is now being tried out in the South China Sea, where Beijing has sought to back its claims with a stronger military presence.

Chinese maps depict a territorial boundary claim that encloses much of the South China Sea. This can only be a source of concern to Japan and other states in the region that depend on free navigation for trade, including oil shipments. If successful, the "Tibetization" of the South China Sea will give Beijing a stranglehold over vital sea lanes.

China is a colonial power in Tibet. Its dubious claim to historical sovereignty over Tibet, based on a map from the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), cannot hide the fact that Tibetans constitute a distinct culture and nationality.

Such is China's confidence about its continued rule over Tibet that it has rejected the Dalai Lama's repeated offers to hold unconditional talks on autonomy rather than independence. Although the current situation gives comfort to Beijing, the future may be very different. If Han history -- with its series of rapid rises and declines in power -- serves as a guide, there is hope for Tibet.

While the world debates whether a rising China is a nation of promise or peril, China's future will depend on how it manages its growing contradiction between market capitalism and political autocracy. Asia's stability and security is inextricably linked to the way China develops. There is little doubt that a powerful, prosperous, united China will challenge the status quo in Asia and elsewhere, while a weak, unstable but unified China will be prone to acts of military adventurism.

One thing is clear: China will never again be a sleeping dragon. This is the lasting contribution of the CCP, which instilled nationalism and pride in Chinese society.

While China's neighbors are wary of its growing assertiveness, a head-on clash between the forces of capitalism and autocracy could loosen central authority in Beijing and create a situation where the traditional ethnic homelands begin to assert themselves. The flight of Russian settlers from Central Asia suggests that in a fundamentally changed situation, the large numbers of Han Chinese now residing in Tibet may be gradually forced to leave.

There is hope for Tibet as long as Tibetans keep up their struggle to preserve their identity. Nothing can crush Tibetan nationalism more than Tibetans giving up hope.

Brahma Chellaney, a strategic-affairs expert based in New Delhi, contributes regularly to The Japan Times.


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