Citizens of prosperous wealthy countries with good stable governments may be insulated from the realities underlying events in the world, realities that may be unpleasant, confusing, or counterintuitive. We lament and worry about why the world is unfair, about why there’s so much conflict, and why we can’t just resolve our differences more graciously and nicely. Aspirations for a better world and inevitable disappointment range across political ideology as adherents try to neatly fit the world into their preconceived notions of morality and understanding of the world, since political ideology is based on effectively arbitrary axioms that may not be tied to reality or human nature.
Absent in all the emotion is an appreciation for the practical realities of geography and outright raw violent force. In fact, even despite the best intentions or explicit desires of the leaders and the populations of these countries, they may have limited or even no choices and may be forced to act in a certain way to protect their own interests. Certain actions and positions may not stem from malice but are required for the sustainability of the state and survival of its people.
I will consider the case of Tibet and also indigenous claimants of ancestral homelands in America and Palestine, and show how they can be understood by the realities of geopolitics and raw violent force.
Tibet and China
China is a major focus of international news and politics since it is so large and directly in conflict with the United States. For better or worse, one issue that has shifted out of the focus has been the Free Tibet Movement for Tibetan Independence, as it's eclipsed by more significant events in the maritime Eastern region of China.
For context, I personally admire Tibetan culture and respect the Dali Lama as a deep source of philosophy, inspiration, and wisdom. I bet most educated and intelligent Chinese do as well despite conflict at the political level. But how do these beliefs at a personal level square with state-level concerns at the geopolitical level?
Let’s consider what Tibet means to China and how it affects other aspects of the Chinese state.
Significance of the Tibet Plateau
The Tibetan Plateau involves three major important issues for China: fresh water, strategic location, and minerals. Let’s briefly turn to each.
Tibet contains massive glaciers that provide fresh water and many of the world’s greatest rivers flow out of there including the Indus, Brahmaputra, Ganges, and Mekong. Crucially for China is that the Tibetan Plateau is the source of the massive Yellow River and the Yangtze River that provide much-needed water for consumption and energy for the rest of downstream eastern China. In fact, without these rivers and their tributaries, China and her people would have had a completely different history.
The Tibetan Plateau provides a strategic buffer zone against India due to its height as well as vast distances to provide strategic depth. China cannot afford to cede such a strategic staging ground and invasion route for the ground forces of foreign powers that can come from this western land route.
Finally, there are valuable mineral deposits that estimated to be worth about $100 billion.
These are significant issues and are the true reasons China cannot have an independent Tibet. I completely understand and sympathize with those who view Tibet in terms of Human Rights, but in the calculus of geopolitics and the level of the State and the ruling regime, Human Rights are far less important than these strategic issues that may affect the very sustainability of the state and its people.
Relation with India
The Himalayas separating China and India have been a virtually impenetrable barrier for thousands of years far before their existence as unified political entities, leading to separate development of two great civilizations with different cultures, and even people that look very different.
The advent of new technology that can bypass this natural barrier and greater geopolitical conflict between China and both India and America has decreased the importance of this natural geographical boundary. India and America are natural allies since they share the same language and both are democracies, in contrast to China’s different language and Communist regime. China must maintain strategic control for land routes upstream and higher up from the West and South, in order to protect its more densely populated eastern coastal areas. This means it must control Tibet.
Thus, the strategic significance of the Tibetan plateau is even more enhanced by the alliance China faces.
South China Sea and Maritime Access
Land to the West is a key strategic issue for China, but another even greater issue is the eastern coastal area and maritime access to the world’s oceans. As China faces external threats here primarily from the United States, Japan, and their allies, it must also keep open the routes to the ocean.
Another method to reach the oceans is through Pakistan into the Indian Ocean, a route that goes right through Tibet. Counterintuitively, the Tibetan plateau provides an alternative route to the ocean through Pakistan. Thus in an indirect way, Tibet is a backdoor safety valve in the case of a constricted and endangered eastern maritime region.
Because India and Pakistan are in direct conflict, and China and India are in indirect conflict, China and Pakistan are natural allies.
Relation with Pakistan
This alliance with Pakistan means that China is assured an alternative path to the ocean in the case of any conflict with maritime powers in the east. This is yet another reason why China may come into conflict with India.
China is pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to connect all of Eurasia for trade. Since the BRI expands westward and also goes through maritime routes through Southeast Asia, strategic access to the Indian Ocean allows it to reinforce any Chinese state-owned companies or other interests via bypassing the oceanic routes in the East, especially through the South China Sea.
All of this would not be possible without controlling contiguous territory that must include land in Tibet.
Tibet is Geographically Indispensable
Thus, we see the importance of Tibet with respect to the geopolitical realities China faces. It is a matter of sustainability of China as a political entity, as well as the fates of its 1.4 billion people that it maintains control over Tibet. This has almost nothing to do with Human Rights or religious freedom, even though the Free Tibet movement may view it in that way.
Even if China wanted to address the rights and freedoms demanded by the Tibetan people and their supporters in the world, China cannot afford to cede Tibet due to Tibet’s crucial geographical importance to the country.
Equality of Analysis
I believe in American ideals like freedom and democracy and that on balance America is far more good than bad, especially as the dominant superpower ensuring Pax America across the world and despite criticism of its foreign policy, interventions, and inevitable mistakes.
Thus, it’s with no criticism or hatred of America when I look into the mirror to reflect back on ourselves for actions in our territory whenever there are criticisms of China or Russia for actions in their territory. We may see that our actions are similar to theirs if we are fair and jump out of our own reference frame. This shows that some actions and positions are inevitable at the nation-state level even though it may not accord with what feels right at the individual level.
Native Americans in America
If we are concerned about the treatment of Tibetans in Tibet within Chinese territory, we must also turn to our own treatment of Native Americans in American territory.
There exist Native American tribes that have been driven out of their ancestral homelands and relegated to reservations in the continental United States. They are treated relatively well now, but much less so historically. In the non-Continental states, there exists a Hawaiian Independence movement among some native peoples there.
What are the chances of America permitting the creation and secessions of Native American sovereign nation-states within its borders, or ceding back Hawaii to its native inhabitants?
Precisely zero. The world would end in a thermonuclear Holocaust before America permits Hawaii to secede from the Union, and take with it a guaranteed strategic location in the Pacific. The same goes for Indian reservations in the continental USA.
America has self-interests based on geopolitical realities, and it does not have any problems with threatening or even using violent force for those self-interests with respect to Native American lands. The Chinese equivalent is Tibet.
These State actions are not immoral, but amoral from the point of view of the sustainability and objectives of the State.
How about the historical and religious claim of Jews to that strip of land now called Israel on the Eastern Mediterranean? Do these claims have merit? How are they relative to Native American claims?
I tend to ignore the religious aspects since religions may conflict and I’m not religious myself, so I just stick with the calculus of power.
If we look at historical claims based on settlement, then the Jews have as much of a claim to Israel as Native Americans have a claim to their lands in America, especially since the first migrations of humans from East Asia across the Bering Strait and down through the Americas started as far back as over 15,000 years ago.
The only difference is that the state of Israel has the raw violent power to defend its territory while the Native Americans do not.
Is this fair? No. Is it ideal? No. But it’s the practical reality.
The Reality is Raw Violent Power
So we see that in the Native American case or the Israeli case, just like the Tibetan case in China, claims are effectively irrelevant unless they are backed by raw violent power. Not just in these places, but every other place and time in the world as well.
How much blood was spilled over the following?
- Somme River in World War 1
- The Eastern Front in World War 2
- The 38th Parallel in the Korean War ending in a stalemate
And it goes on. Ideas of morality or borders in news headlines and activism don’t tend to factor in geopolitical realities or raw violent power, but they are among the most pertinent issues to understanding the issues in the headlines we see today in Social Media and traditional news.