Chinese Geopolitics and the Significance of Tibet

George Friedman | April 15

Stratfor – China is an island. We do not mean it is surrounded by water; we mean China is surrounded by territory that is difficult to traverse. Therefore, China is hard to invade; given its size and population, it is even harder to occupy. This also makes it hard for the Chinese to invade others; not utterly impossible, but quite difficult. Containing a fifth of the world’s population, China can wall itself off from the world, as it did prior to the United Kingdom’s forced entry in the 19th century and under Mao Zedong. All of this means China is a great power, but one that has to behave very differently than other great powers.

Analyzing Chinese Geography

Let’s begin simply by analyzing Chinese geography, looking at two maps. The first represents the physical geography of China. The second shows the population density not only of China, but also of the surrounding countries.

China’s geography is roughly divided into two parts: a mountainous, arid western part and a coastal plain that becomes hilly at its westward end. The overwhelming majority of China’s population is concentrated in that coastal plain. The majority of China’s territory ”” the area west of this coastal plain ”” is lightly inhabited, however. This eastern region is the Chinese heartland that must be defended at all cost.

China as island is surrounded by impassable barriers ”” barriers that are difficult to pass or areas that essentially are wastelands with minimal population. To the east is the Pacific Ocean. To the north and northwest are the Siberian and Mongolian regions, sparsely populated and difficult to move through. To the south, there are the hills, mountains and jungles that separate China from Southeast Asia; to visualize this terrain, just remember the incredible effort that went into building the Burma Road during World War II. To the southwest lie the Himalayas. In the northwest are Kazakhstan and the vast steppes of Central Asia. Only in the far northeast, with the Russian maritime provinces and the Yalu River separating China from Korea, are there traversable points of contacts. But the balance of military power is heavily in China’s favor at these points.

Strategically, China has two problems, both pivoting around the question of defending the coastal region. First, China must prevent attacks from the sea. This is what the Japanese did in the 1930s, first invading Manchuria in the northeast and then moving south into the heart of China. It is also what the British and other European powers did on a lesser scale in the 19th century. China’s defense against such attacks is size and population. It draws invaders in and then wears them out, with China suffering massive casualties and economic losses in the process.

The second threat to China comes from powers moving in through the underpopulated portion of the west, establishing bases and moving east, or coming out of the underpopulated regions around China and invading. This is what happened during the Mongol invasion from the northwest. But that invasion was aided by tremendous Chinese disunity, as were the European and Japanese incursions.

Beijing’s Three Imperatives

Beijing therefore has three geopolitical imperatives:

1) Maintain internal unity so that far powers can’t weaken the ability of the central government to defend China.

2) Maintain a strong coastal defense to prevent an incursion from the Pacific.

3) Secure China’s periphery by anchoring the country’s frontiers on impassable geographical features; in other words, hold its current borders.

In short, China’s strategy is to establish an island, defend its frontiers efficiently using its geographical isolation as a force multiplier, and, above all, maintain the power of the central government over the country, preventing regionalism and factionalism.

We see Beijing struggling to maintain control over China. Its vast security apparatus and interlocking economic system are intended to achieve that. We see Beijing building coastal defenses in the Pacific, including missiles that can reach deep into the Pacific, in the long run trying to force the U.S. Navy on the defensive. And we see Beijing working to retain control over two key regions: Xinjiang and Tibet.

Xinjiang is Muslim. This means at one point it was invaded by Islamic forces. It also means that it can be invaded and become a highway into the Chinese heartland. Defense of the Chinese heartland therefore begins in Xinjiang. So long as Xinjiang is Chinese, Beijing will enjoy a 1,500-mile, inhospitable buffer between Lanzhou ”” the westernmost major Chinese city and its oil center ”” and the border of Kazakhstan. The Chinese thus will hold Xinjiang regardless of Muslim secessionists.

The Importance of Tibet to China

Now look at Tibet on the population density and terrain maps. On the terrain map one sees the high mountain passes of the Himalayas. Running from the Hindu Kush on the border with Pakistan to the Myanmar border, small groups can traverse this terrain, but no major army is going to thrust across this border in either direction. Supplying a major force through these mountains is impossible. From a military point of view, it is a solid wall.

Note that running along the frontier directly south of this border is one of the largest population concentrations in the world. If China were to withdraw from Tibet, and there were no military hindrance to population movement, Beijing fears this population could migrate into Tibet. If there were such a migration, Tibet could turn into an extension of India and, over time, become a potential beachhead for Indian power. If that were to happen, India’s strategic frontier would directly abut Sichuan and Yunnan ”” the Chinese heartland.

The Chinese have a fundamental national interest in retaining Tibet, because Tibet is the Chinese anchor in the Himalayas. If that were open, or if Xinjiang became independent, the vast buffers between China and the rest of Eurasia would break down. The Chinese can’t predict the evolution of Indian, Islamic or Russian power in such a circumstance, and they certainly don’t intend to find out. They will hold both of these provinces, particularly Tibet.

The Chinese note that the Dalai Lama has been in India ever since China invaded Tibet. The Chinese regard him as an Indian puppet. They see the latest unrest in Tibet as instigated by the Indian government, which uses the Dalai Lama to try to destabilize the Chinese hold on Tibet and open the door to Indian expansion. To put it differently, their view is that the Indians could shut the Dalai Lama down if they wanted to, and that they don’t signals Indian complicity.

It should be added that the Chinese see the American hand behind this as well. Apart from public statements of support, the Americans and Indians have formed a strategic partnership since 2001. The Chinese view the United States ”” which is primarily focused on the Islamic world ”” as encouraging India and the Dalai Lama to probe the Chinese, partly to embarrass them over the Olympics and partly to increase the stress on the central government. The central government is stretched in maintaining Chinese security as the Olympics approach. The Chinese are distracted. Beijing also notes the similarities between what is happening in Tibet and the ”œcolor” revolutions the United States supported and helped stimulate in the former Soviet Union.

It is critical to understand that whatever the issues might be to the West, the Chinese see Tibet as a matter of fundamental national security, and they view pro-Tibetan agitation in the West as an attempt to strike at the heart of Chinese national security. The Chinese are therefore trapped. They are staging the Olympics in order to demonstrate Chinese cohesion and progress. But they must hold on to Tibet for national security reasons, and therefore their public relations strategy is collapsing. Neither India nor the United States is particularly upset that the Europeans are thinking about canceling attendance at various ceremonies.

A Lack of Countermoves

China has few countermoves to this pressure over Tibet. There is always talk of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. That is not going to happen ”” not because China doesn’t want to, but because it does not have the naval capability of seizing control of the Taiwan Straits or seizing air superiority, certainly not if the United States doesn’t want it (and we note that the United States has two carrier battle groups in the Taiwan region at the moment). Beijing thus could bombard Taiwan, but not without enormous cost to itself and its own defensive capabilities. It does not have the capability to surge forces across the strait, much less to sustain operations there in anything short of a completely permissive threat environment. The Chinese could fire missiles at Taiwan, but that risks counterstrikes from American missiles. And, of course, Beijing could go nuclear, but that is not likely given the stakes. The most likely Chinese counter here would be trying to isolate Taiwan from shipping by firing missiles. But that again assumes the United States would not respond ”” something Beijing can’t count on.

While China thus lacks politico-military options to counter the Tibet pressure, it also lacks economic options. It is highly dependent for its economic well-being on exports to the United States and other countries; drawing money out of U.S. financial markets would require Beijing to put it somewhere else. If the Chinese invested in Europe, European interest rates would go down and U.S. rates would go up, and European money would pour into the United States. The long-held fear of the Chinese withdrawing their money from U.S. markets is therefore illusory: The Chinese are trapped economically. Far more than the United States, they can’t afford a confrontation.

That leaves the pressure on Tibet, and China struggling to contain it. Note that Beijing’s first imperative is to maintain China’s internal coherence. China’s great danger is always a weakening of the central government and the development of regionalism. Beijing is far from losing control, but recently we have observed a set of interesting breakdowns. The inability to control events in Tibet is one. Significant shortages of diesel fuel is a second. Shortages of rice and other grains is a third. These are small things, but they are things that should not be happening in a country as well-heeled in terms of cash as China is, and as accustomed as it is to managing security threats.

China must hold Tibet, and it will. The really interesting question is whether the stresses building up on China’s central administration are beginning to degrade its ability to control and manage events. It is easy to understand China’s obsession with Tibet. The next step is to watch China trying to pick up the pieces on a series of administrative miscues. That will give us a sense of the state of Chinese affairs.

Tell George what you think

This analysis was just a fraction of what our Members enjoy, Click Here to start your Free Membership Trial Today!

If a friend forwarded this email to you, click here to join our mailing list for FREE intelligence and other special offers.

Please feel free to distribute this Intelligence Report to friends or repost to your Web site linking to

This post was read 95 times.

About author View all posts

quiet Bill

18 CommentsLeave a comment

  • have been used as a political football for a donkey’s age. However, just what is it the Dalai Lama hopes to achieve? He isn’t calling for independence from China. Tibet is a part of China and there’s no escaping that fact. I suppose what he’s hoping for is that public opinion gives him extra leverage to advance his cause. China will just ignore public opinion and do whatever they feel is necessary to protect their strategic interests. If the heat gets hot enough, they’ll just withdraw into isolation policies again.

  • The Chinese accusing the Dalai Lama of splittist tencencies…that is the constantly recurring phrase…underscores the fact that China itself is one of the last old fashioned empires. It has always been vulnerable when there has been no strong central control. They know about civil war and outside invaders.
    I expect it will take the inevitable economic crash for them to let up in Tibet. The central government will find itself occupied with things on the coast and if the government is not pouring money into Tibet, many of the outside settlers will leave. With the farmfields and agricultural river bottoms at 12,000 ft, it is not the most hospitable place on earth.
    If the Chinese government were smart, it would make accomodation with the Dalai Lama and encourage the spread of Bhuddist monasteries throughtout China to absorb the huge number of young Chinese males who will never find wives and establish families because of gender selection and one child policies.
    Historically, all that testosterone energy gets worked out in military pursuits and that would not be a good thing for any of us on this planet.

  • the Daila Lama speaks about the peaceful uprising of March 10, 1959. But surely he realizes the PRC would be suspicious of his motivations when the CIA was involved with that uprising? The Chinese for very good reason are highly resistant to movements that have western backing in their country.

    How would Americans feel if the Chinese started financing their politicians?

    BS that the Daila Lama doesn’t realize the impact the Olympics have on his gaining popular support. He’s a smart man and knows the value of public opinion. He ‘says’ he supports the Olympics, but what is he doing to halt the opposition to China that is being conducted world wide?

    I pray I will never again see athletes standing on podiums raising black-gloved fists as political statements, such as was done at the Mexican games in 1968!

  • with particular attention to dates and timeframes – then correlate them against periods/dates of recorded CIA involvement in Tibet.

    Spiritual man he certainly is, but I believe the Dalai Lama’s no slouch at playing the geopolitical game. I get the feeling that part of that was specifically intended as code speech to the Chinese.

    “The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential.”

    – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  • If the population of at the south of the Himalayas wanted too be in Tibet, they would already be there. They are not. Therefore the mountains are a very effective barrier, and that’s not going to change.

    Tibet’s access to China is through a single difficult pass. A second barrier to invasion.

    These effective barriers make your thesis suspect. A better thesis is lebensraum for the Chinese.

  • Precisely my own take on the China situation; much more granular of course. They ain’t giving Tibet “back”, it’s never going to happen. It wouldn’t be actual suicide from their perspective, but it would be getting the gun out, loading and cocking it and writing a note.

    This is utterly geopolitically obvious to anyone who spends mere minutes examining the situation. Which means this is utterly obvious to anyone putatively fomenting insurrection in Tibet; it has, in fact, always been obvious to those people.

    Which means that anyone fomenting insurrection in Tibet would necessarily have goals that specifically do not include success. In fact, it is far more likely that spectacular public failure would be the very goal itself – the real goal, which would be embarrassment potential, would be maximized if such an insurrection was put down with maximum bloodshed, brutality and horror.

    “The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential.”

    – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  • The piece, which accords with reality, indicates that just about the last reason for China’s interest in Tibet is lebensraum. They’ve got more than enough of that in the West.

  • I’m pretty sure that’s the commonly held view of things, and probably is so for a reason. The Tibetan Autonomous Republic, and the sort of vaguely independent Tibet before it, between WWI and WWII, has pretty restrictive boundaries though. It’s really only half of geographic Tibet, and it leaves huge mountainous regions inside China proper. These mountainous areas are at least as good for self-defense as the Burma border regions or really almost any border region enjoyed by any country anywhere.

    Would China really have a hard time defending itself if it let go of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (the area under the historic direct control of the Dalai Lama) and kept the rest? I can’t imagine China being topographically vulnerable to anyone, India and USA included, through that territory.

    Now, giving up the whole of geographic Tibet, sure. Then you have China’s borders running right at the edge of the Szechuan basin, which would be like America letting the Channel Islands host a Chinese naval base. Insanity, in other words. But if you put the eastern edge of Tibet at the divide between the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers, then you leave a chunk of territory wider than Cambodia, and comprised entirely of huge mountain ridges and unnavigable rivers, between Tibet and the valuable parts of China. I don’t know if even smugglers would be able to cross that, much less an army.

    Xinjiang is actually much more problematic for China. Give up that and you do give up a relatively flat and traversable back door into the Chinese heartland. It’s hard to imagine large-scale land invasions happening in the future, so the point might be moot anyway, but if you do entertain the notion of large ground-army campaigns in the future (which in a confrontation between Russian and China over East Siberia, the Russians could seek to open a second front through Turkestan), then the Chinese giving up Xinjiang would actually be that loaded-gun-with-suicide-note you describe.

    Anyway, I’m no military expert, but I wonder if the costs of letting go of the TAR are really as extensive as they’re often described to be. You can’t mount an eastwards-oriented campaign from Llasa, I don’t think. Northwards, maybe…

  • Part of the problem is that the Chinese see letting any of its “disputed” territories go as an invitation to others to seek the same. So if they should prove weak in TAR they ultimately lose Xinjiang, Taiwan and other nationalities.

  • It’s one thing to bomb and shoot rockets at China, stupid as that might be. But to invade China on land would require vast amounts of petroleum fuels.

    Ironically, the world’s dwindling supplies of petroleum might finally bring an end to expansionist empires. Fuel simply costs too much to invade and occupy other countries.

    Ideology couldn’t do it; how about expensive gas?
    Good times for Smiley! 😀

  • Great post, here are some additional points to strengthen your argument. As you mentioned, China must secure its border to protect the heartland in the East, especially focusing on highly defensible regions.

    Part of the reason China puts so much stress on recovering Taiwan is to protect it from an ambhious/arial invasion from that island. Further, Taiwan would allow it to project naval power into the Pacific. If you look at a map, Japan, S. Korea and the Phillipines, coupled with Taiwan, make an extremely effective barrier against Chinese naval power and represent a massive threat of seaborne invasion. Is it any wonder the U.S. has bases in 3 of the 4? US Military aid?

    Many of the reasons China wants to recover Taiwan, therefore, resemble those for holding Tibet. Of course there are additional issues like face, trade, legitimacy – but they also contribute to your point about the cohesion of central authority.

  • Chinese vent anti-Western fury online

    Bloggers are now calling for boycotts and stoking death threats over perceived insults from Westerners who have criticized China’s human rights record ahead of this summer’s Olympic Games.

    By Peter Ford | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

    from the April 17, 2008 edition

    Beijing – A violent storm of nationalist indignation is roiling the Chinese internet, as bloggers vent their anger at perceived Western insults in the wake of the Tibetan uprising last month.

    Simmering resentment at the way the Olympic torch relay was treated by pro-Tibet demonstrators in London and Paris has boiled over this week into invective against a CNN commentator, a French supermarket chain, and Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives.

    The government, which keeps a close eye on Internet debate through censors who delete unapproved comment, has given the campaign free rein. Indeed it has added its voice to the angry chorus, which some observers say echoes ancient resentments.

    “This has deep historical resonance,” says Kenneth Lieberthal, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. Now that China has regained the international stature it ceded 150 years ago to Western powers, he says, the country’s leaders harbor suspicions that “the West is trying to humiliate them again.”

    CNN apologized Wednesday to Chinese citizens who felt that commentator Jack Cafferty had called them a “bunch of goons and thugs” during an edition of “The Situation Room” last week. Mr. Cafferty had previously explained that he had been referring to the Chinese government, not to the Chinese people.

    The clarification and apology came too late, however, to stem a tide of outraged posts across the Chinese blogosphere, where a Chinese translation of Cafferty’s derogatory comments had been widely disseminated.

    Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu took up their cause Tuesday, saying Beijing was “shocked to hear the malicious attacks … against the Chinese people.” She demanded an apology.

    The wave of anti-Western sentiment – unmatched since US planes bombed China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999 –has been fueled by bloggers complaining about biased Western media coverage of the Tibet issue and posting examples.

    Demonstrations in Europe that disrupted the international Olympic torch relay fanned the flames: The torch is seen here as a symbol of the summer Olympic Games, which are a source of intense national pride.

    The Chinese government has also instilled a sense of pride in the country’s achievements over the past three decades. “They have pulled themselves up and they are beginning to command global respect,” says Mr. Lieberthal. “They have economic achievements to show, and they have advanced without wars, and without upsetting the international apple cart.”

    Most Chinese are baffled by the Western outcry over Tibet, he points out, since they believe that Tibet has always been part of China and that Tibetans have benefited from the country’s growing prosperity.

    “They think that Tibet cannot be the real reason” for Western criticism of China, Lieberthal adds. “They think that the real reason must be that no matter what they do … the West will give them no credit.”

    The tone of the Internet debate has grown increasingly heated. “Don’t think all Westerners are arrogant and ignorant, but right now most of them are” was among the most moderate postings Wednesday on a discussion thread.


  • is that although what you say may have merit – what actually matters in terms of analyzing/predicting Chinese action is what China’s assessment of the realities are.

    “The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge he will lose sight of what is essential.”

    – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  • By Andrew Jacobs
    Friday, April 18, 2008

    BEIJING: She is the “smiling angel in the wheelchair,” a one-legged fencer from Shanghai who endured a gantlet of anti-Chinese demonstrators last week as she rolled through the streets of Paris clutching the Olympic flame.

    Each time a protester broke through the barricades and lunged for the torch, the woman, Jin Jing, shielded it with her body. During one particularly ugly scuffle, she was bruised and scratched by a flailing woman wrapped in a Tibetan flag.

    Jin, 28, a former switchboard operator who lost her leg to cancer as a child, returned home a hero. The news media have been filled with accounts of her bravery, using her actions to highlight what many here see as the cold-hearted cruelty of those who seek to spoil China’s moment in the sun in August, the Olympic Games in Beijing.

    “When Jin Jing protected the torch with all her effort, she was not only defending her motherland, but also the Olympic Games, which belong to the whole world,” said Xinhua, the government news agency.

    “Golden Girl Lifts a Nation,” proclaimed a headline in China Daily.

    The official Web site of the Beijing Games lauded her valor and posted a blow-by-blow account of the April 7 episode. “With her frail body she was defending the Olympic spirit, which moved many people,” it said.

    The incident, largely unpublicized in the West, has crystallized the outrage and humiliation felt by many Chinese who have been stunned by the torch’s hostile reception as it hopscotches the globe. Although recent stops in Argentina, Tanzania, Oman, Pakistan and India went off smoothly, there were concerns about future stops, including Australia.

    “It’s just appalling that people would tarnish an event that the Chinese people have been awaiting for so long,” said Wu Tianren, 79, a retired economics professor, walking in a park here freshly planted with petunias and marigolds. “This makes us very sad.”

    Many people here, reflecting the state-controlled media’s point of view, believe that the demonstrators are acting at the behest of the Dalai Lama, who they say is seeking Tibetan independence, despite his assertions to the contrary. Another target of public anger is the French, who are accused of encouraging Tibetan rights advocates and failing to protect the torch.

    Internet message boards have been brewing with anger. A text message campaign is urging a boycott of French products and companies, especially Carrefour, a supermarket chain here.

    “The power of an individual is very small and limited, but if we get 1.3 billion Chinese united, anyone and any country would be shocked by our power,” read a posting on Yahoo by someone identified only as Liuanna.


  • Ever expanding their bloody little invasions on the false premise of avoiding one. Ever expanding their empire and ever claiming they are under ‘threat’ until the costs of all the ridiculous warmongering comes crashing around their starving plebes.

    It is alas the fate of all Empires, ours included.

    It’s the oldest ponzie scheme there is.

    And how else could a man of peace whose life has been in the service of peace be thought of by those who think only of war and taking, and violence and cruelty.

    Ahhhh, that he is up to something. It can’t be, there are no good people in the world.

    Me thinks that is a projection of the accusers own state of mind.

Leave a Reply