The Chinese government’s management of Tibet has attracted a great deal of attention over the years. Concerns about human rights, the preservation of Tibetan’s ethnic identity and religious freedom have figured prominently in media coverage of the region.
Whilst internal stability is paramount to the Chinese authorities, Tibet’s strategic importance to the government is often overlooked and a better understanding of it is essential to understand Beijing’s attitude to the region.
China is a water-poor country and Tibet is a vital source of water. According to Nina Ninkovic and Jean-Pierre Lehmann, the Tibetan Plateau is the ‘largest repository of freshwater after the two poles, Arctic and Antarctic,’ and is the source of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, which serve roughly 520 million people in China. As such, China is deeply reluctant to cede political control in the region for fear of losing control of such an environmentally vital resource.
Tibet is also home to a vast stock of minerals that are vital to China’s industrial development. Geologists have discovered extensive deposits of iron, copper, lithium and gold in the region which are highly sought after by China’s industrial sector which is largely dependent on foreign imports.
Aside from resources, Tibet acts as a buffer zone between China and India, its strategic rival in the Asia-Pacific. Since Tibet is such a large and geographically inhospitable region, it presents outside military powers looking to cross the area with a huge logistical challenge in the event of military conflict.
As such, for these three strategic reasons, China has taken a notoriously hard line with movements arguing for political independence in the region. And, given that China’s demand for resources and strategic advantage over other competitors in the region will likely become stronger, a more liberal attitude to Tibetan’s political aspirations is highly unlikely in the future.