Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 4

In the fall of 1950 the Chinese People’s Liberation Army began its invasion and conquest of the Tibet Plateau. Since that time, outside attention has quite properly focused on the suffering of the Tibetan people. A million Tibetans, one person in six, died as a result of the Communist Chinese occupation. Art, medicine, poetry, religious teachings, music, literature, mathematics, science–the results of two thousand years of high culture–were all destroyed in mindless waves of political madness generated by the Chinese Communist Party.

Lost in the horror of the Tibetan people’s torment has been any understanding of the geopolitical menace behind the PLA’s march onto the Plateau. World leaders should have noticed that Beijing began the Tibet campaign at the very moment that the PLA was rescuing North Korean communism from a just retribution at the hands of United Nations forces. Even against a people as unprepared for war as the Tibetans, the PLA required a lot of manpower and scarce military resources to conquer an area roughly the size of Western Europe at the same time its forces were engaged in a major struggle elsewhere. Beijing’s willingness, in essence, to prosecute a two-front war should have set off alarm bells in foreign capitals, or at least caused war planners and net assessment specialists there to wonder what the future value of Tibet might be to the communist regime in China.

But if it didn’t set off alarm bells then, it should now. Because, having sat on the Plateau for fifty years, Beijing has signaled that the time has come to exploit it as part of a long term game of military, political and economic domination of South Asia.

At a cost of billions of dollars, Beijing has started building the third and final leg of a military railroad across the Tibet Plateau. The first two sections, from Lanzhou to Xining and Xining to Golmud, were completed in the late 1950s and late 1970s, respectively. Those two sections were relatively easy. The 700 miles from Golmud to Lhasa will be a major undertaking, one involving 286 bridges, 10 major tunnels and miles of permafrost. The entire length of the Lanzhou to Lhasa line will be around 1,500 miles or the distance from Toronto to Miami.

The railroad will open previously unrealized strategic, tactical and conventional possibilities for the PLA to direct military firepower toward South Asia and beyond. With this railroad in place the PLA will have excellent hiding places for its new rail-mobile ICBM, the DF-31A. If the PLA follows the Russian lead and rail-bases its ICBMs, each missile train could carry up to thirty nuclear warheads capable of destroying any strategic target in Japan and many in the Western United States. In eastern China, it is the PLA’s practice to move its theater ballistic missiles, the DF 11 and the DF 15, by rail to staging areas prior to dispersal to pre-surveyed launch sites. The Tibet Plateau Railroad will give the PLA the opportunity to threaten India with theater ballistic missiles in the same way it now threatens Taiwan. From a military logistics standpoint, rail has an enormous advantage over roads in moving heavy equipment, supplies and manpower. In effect, this means the permanent militarization of the entire plateau into a staging ground for aggression into South Asia. With even a single line, the PLA could move about 12 infantry divisions to Central Tibet in 30 days to meet up with their pre-positioned equipment.

In short, Beijing’s new rail line into Tibet represents an enormous political and military challenge to India.

But the rail line is only part of Beijing’s larger geopolitical strategy for dominating South Asia, the various pieces of which are just now coming into focus. If the Indian Ocean and South Asia are looked at like the face of a clock with India sitting in the middle of the dial, then Tibet is at High Noon. As the following survey demonstrates, it becomes apparent that Beijing is increasingly making inroads in these sectors while gaining influence and power. Moving clockwise:

Three O’clock
In late December 2002, China and Bangladesh signed a “Defense Cooperation Agreement” which covers at least military training and defense production. There’s no reference in the agreement as to whom China and Bangladesh might be cooperating against or what weapons might be jointly produced. The Bangladesh Army is equipped with Chinese tanks, the Navy has Chinese frigates and missile boats and the Bangladesh Air Force flies Chinese fighter jets. China has paid US$25 million for a “China-Bangladesh Friendship Center”.

Five O’clock
The relationship between Burma and China can be characterized as something between a client state and a satellite, not unlike that which Moscow had with Eastern Europe during the Soviet days. With the recent exception of some Russian MIG-29s, the entire Burmese military is Chinese-equipped. Without military and political support from Beijing, the Burmese military junta would probably be overthrown in an afternoon; it is universally hated by the Burmese people. In return, Burma has granted the PLA basing rights at its islands in the Andaman Sea, where it can spy on Indian space launch activities. According to some reports, Chinese assistance to Burmese port improvements may presage the arrival of China’s new generation of nuclear submarines.

Six O’clock
Sri Lanka’s Army, Navy and Air Force also are at least partially equipped by Beijing, including armored personnel carriers, missile boats and fighter jets. This arrangement also includes training and parts supplies, and provides the Chinese with opportunities to influence local military officers. China also seems to have a higher level of physical presence in the Indian Ocean’s various island nations than would be warranted by the levels of trade and other economic activity.

Seven to Nine O’clock
In recent years there has been a big upswing in military exchanges between Beijing and those African nations having coastlines on the Indian Ocean. For example, in November of 2002 the PLA donated about US$2 million to the Mozambique Army in the form of trucks, boots, clothing and other supplies. The same thin-edge-of-the-wedge tactics are being used up and down the east coast of Africa.

Ten O’clock
Pakistan has the same relationship with China that Burma has–something between a client state and a satellite. Islamabad’s entire strategic weapons system–fissile materials, weaponization and missile delivery system–could in fact be stamped “Made in China”. In the spring of 2002, PLA General Xiong Guangkai signed defense cooperation and defense production agreements with Pakistan. Cooperation against whom and production of what were not revealed. Most recently it has become apparent that Beijing is secretly fostering the Pakistan-North Korea nuclear weapons for long-range missiles swap.

Beijing is also investing over US$2 billion in a naval base at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea (near Karachi), which, within a decade, could become another nuclear submarine or even aircraft carrier homeport. Chinese firms are constructing the facility and the roads from the base that lead northward through the Karakoram Highway to the PRC.

Communist Chinese leader Mao Zedong is famous for his idea that guerrillas can win by “surrounding the cities from the countryside.” Looking at a map of the Indian Ocean, it is apparent that Beijing has had a long-term geostrategic action plan that is a variation on this theme. In this case India is being surrounded by smaller neighboring states as Beijing slowly builds up its military strength and influence. Delhi is not completely awake to this threat, but at least one eye is partially open. For example, even though the various actions of Pakistan in Kashmir raise anger levels, some critical elements of the Indian elite are beginning to understand that their Pakistani problems represent classic proxy warfare. Islamabad is to be blamed for being a pawn of Beijing, but it is still just a pawn.

To what end, one wonders, has Beijing been making such an enormous and expensive effort over five decades? China faces no external security threats. India does not sell strategic weapons to Taiwan, for example, nor does it seek naval bases for nuclear submarines in the South China Sea.

The conclusion is inescapable that Beijing has a Grand Design for political, military and economic dominance over peoples and territories extending from the Sea of Japan to the Arabian Sea. And those who are not dominant, of course, are destined to become subservient.

William C. Triplett, II is a defense writer in Washington, and is the co-author of Year of the Rat, and Red Dragon Rising.