The U.S. military is scheduled to take part on a joint military exercise with India near its disputed border with China in the Tibetan region in October[i]. This event only tops the list of increased tensions between both powers for control over the region. In 2020, a clash between soldiers from both nations in the border left at least twenty dead[ii]. Additionally, in 2021 another confrontation occurred after one Chinese soldier crossed the Line of Actual Control to the Indian side of the Ladakh region and was later arrested[iii]. Considering these events, it is necessary to understand why it is so important for China as a rising power to control the territory and what are the long-term implications of the conflict.
It can be said that, in the case of China, Tibet is important due to material interests and ideological concerns. Regarding material interests, Tibet is considered the third largest source of water in the world, and it is also called the “tower of water” of the world[iv]. The water that flows from the glaciers in Tibet supply some of the largest rivers in the world and within China including the Yellow River in the north and the Yangtze River in the south, both being the major water sources of the nation[v]. It is not only about water security but the importance of it for China compared to other nations in the world. China has the largest population globally and has traditionally depended on one thing for its survival: agriculture. Despite the technology advancements and economic development, China still has agriculture at the core of the nation, which has been central for the economic growth the nation has experienced, starting with the fact that it is a necessity for them to be able to feed the whole population[vi]. Additionally, access to this resource also produces commercial gains for China. Since 2006, China produces bottled mineral water that is extracted directly from the Tibetan plateau, making it one of the first commercialized resources in the region[vii]. Because it is necessary to have direct access to the plateau in order to extract and commercialize mineral water, the securing of uninterrupted access to the Tibetan region and its water resources is essential, something that is threatened by India’s claims of sovereignty over the region. Both China and India have claims on the Tibetan region of Aksai Chin, with the later aiming to incorporated it to their administered Ladakh region. Therefore, if India were to control of the region and restrict access, China would no longer have uninterrupted access to the water resources.
Another important material aspect of the region is the military projection and wartime infrastructure that Tibet can provide. It has been stated that ability to transport troops, supplies and armament during times of conflict is essential for the Chinese war effort, which is achieved through the construction of railroads. China sees Tibet as central for this interest. Considering its isolated location and hard terrain, having the capabilities to transport troops and supplies is a priority[viii], especially considering that India, a potential threat for Chinese interests and security, is across the border in Tibet.
Regarding ideological concerns, there are several characteristics that make Tibet a vital region regarding the legitimacy of Chinese control over its minorities. First, the Tibetan region is scarcely populated, and its inhabitants mostly consider themselves as Tibetans and not Chinese citizens. Therefore, we have a scarcely populated region that is not necessarily a supporter of China. This causes a threat for both internal and external border security[ix]. This is because Tibet proves to be a weak border and, considering that the neighboring state is India, it makes it even more urgent for China to solidify its control of the region and increase military presence there. Regarding internal security, if Tibet and its population were to gain more autonomy, this would highly diminish China’s legitimacy regarding the control of its minorities. Losing control over the Tibetan population would cause a chain reaction in which other minority groups that have separatist claims would also try to follow the steps of the Tibetans, starting with the Xingjian region and the Uyghurs.
Finally, it is important to mention the China policy of correcting past wrongdoings towards the nation, considering the Tibetan border one of them. The Shimla Convention of 1914 established the McMahon, which delimited the border of Tibet. Even though China was a participant, the final decision that delimited the border between India and Tibet was taken without China’s consent[x]. The convention occurred in 1914, when the nation was suffering the struggles of the so called “Century of humiliation” and events such as the First Sino-Japanese war twenty years earlier. Therefore, it can be said that the desire of China for control over Tibet also originates as part of the Chinese mentality of rising again in the international system, which is currently at the front of its foreign policy, therefore increasing the ideological importance of Tibet for China and the control over it.
In conclusion, The Tibetan region is highly important for Chinese interests, both regarding material gains as well as ideological power. In both aspects, Tibet provides China with several benefits, which range from water security to legitimacy in the control of its minorities, which makes its control a priority. Additionally, considering that Tibet separates China from an increasingly challenging India, it should be expected that China will continue considering the control of Tibet as essential for the nation’s security and interests.
[i] Sud, V., Starr, B., & Magramo, K. (2022, August 7). US to take part in military exercise near India’s disputed border with China. CNN. Retrieved September 7, 2022, from https://www.cnn.com/2022/08/06/india/india-us-military-exercise-line-of-actual-control-china-intl-hnk/index.html
 Griffiths, J., Gupta, S., Westcott, B., & Picheta, R. (2020, June 17). Twenty Indian soldiers dead after clash with China along disputed border. CNN. Retrieved September 7, 2022, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/16/asia/china-india-border-clash-intl-hnk/index.html
[iii] Madhavendra, R. (2021, January 10). Indian Army apprehends Chinese soldier near disputed Himalayan border. CNN. Retrieved September 7, 2022, from https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/10/asia/china-soldier-india-border-clash-intl/index.html?utm_term=link&utm_content=2021-01-10T18%3A30%3A09&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twCNN
[iv] Sanchez, P. (2019, March 9). Why is Tibet known as the ‘Water Tower’?. Smart Water Magazine. Retrieved September 7, 2022, from https://smartwatermagazine.com/blogs/paula-sanchez/why-tibet-known-water-tower
[v] Reuters. (2008, March 25). Factbox: Why is remote Tibet of strategic significance? Reuters. Retrieved September 7, 2022, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tibet-strategic/factbox-why-is-remote-tibet-of-strategic-significance-idUSSP2305020080325
[vii] Reuters. (2008, March 25). Factbox: Why is remote Tibet of strategic significance? Reuters. Retrieved September 7, 2022, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tibet-strategic/factbox-why-is-remote-tibet-of-strategic-significance-idUSSP2305020080325
[viii] International Campaign for Tibet. (2004). Crossing the Line: China’s Railway to Lhasa, Tibet. International Campaign for Tibet. https://www.savetibet.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/2003RailwayReport.pdf
[ix] Abanti, B. (2013). China and its Peripheries: Strategic Significance of Tibet. Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 220, 1-12. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/165109/IB220-Abanti-ChinaPeriphery-Tibet.pdf
[x] Arpi, C. (2015). The border is fixed: The Simla Conference. Indian Defense Review. Retrieved September 7, 2022, from http://www.indiandefencereview.com/spotlights/the-border-is-fixed-the-simla-conference/