Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 4

By William C. Triplett, II

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