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Geopolitical Significance of Tibet

– Tibetan Rivers as a Weapon

By ThubtenSamphel

Among scholars and strategic thinkers in Asia and elsewhere, there is a new recognition of the enormous geopolitical and environmental importance of Tibet to the continent which is home to nearly half of the Earth’s population.1 This recognition is driven home by China’s stunning economic growth for the last more than 30 years. It is no accident that China’s dynamic economic growth coincided with Beijing’s discovery of Tibet as a vast and till now untapped source of minerals, water and energy. The new appreciation of the importance of the Tibetan plateau also grows out of Chinese scientists’ discovery that the plateau is the world’s Third Pole and the ‘Water Tower of Asia’. In addition, Chinese geologists have identified more than 130 minerals in Tibet ‘with significant reserves of the world’s deposits of uranium, chromite, boron, lithium, borax, and iron.”

What China does with Tibet’s natural resources is its business, as long as this is done responsibly and sustainably, although there is little evidence of this. Already, there are street protests in Tibet where Tibetans complain bitterly of rampant mining activities that pollute river waters that harm the health of humans and animals. However, what China does with the waters of the 10 major river systems that originate from Tibet and sustain the life of about 47 per cent of the world’s total human population is another matter. From a problem confined to the Tibetan people alone it becomes a pan-Asian problem.

What are China’s real intentions of damming, and diverting rivers from the south to the north and the likely consequences of such actions on downstream nations? “Anxieties about China’s intentions were inflamed in 2005 by the publication of the provocatively titled Tibet’s Water Will Save China. Though it was not an official statement of policy, it was written by a former officer of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, Li Ling, and its wide circulation gave it sufficient stature in Indian eyes to merit careful scrutiny. Ling’s enthusiasm for diverting Tibet’s rivers, including the Brahmaputra, to northern China to alleviate the acute water crisis there fitted enough of the facts to set alarm bells ringing

Balaji Viswanathan

China has started using it as a weapon, a deadly and a lethal weapon. In Tibet China is in control of waters flowing into Indian subcontinent and South East Asia. There, it has Control over Indus and its tributaries as well as Brahmaputra and its tributaries in Tibet.

Chinese strategy is to construct dams over the rivers so that it can regularize the flow of water as per its own will and use it as a weapon to bargain for it to trouble the countries. The other strategies involve creating a natural dam by blasting the river valley of rivers and then demolishing it to flood Indian territories without the danger of being blamed legally or logically.

India has a lot of concern with respect to Tibetan rivers flowing into its territory.


  1. China’s dam building overdrive is a concern because there are no bilateral or multilateral treaties on the water
  2. China believes dam building on the Brahmaputra helps it assert claim over Arunachal Pradesh
  3. India believes China’s projects in the Tibetan plateau threaten to reduce river flows into India
  4. Dams, canals, irrigation systems can turn water into a political weapon to be wielded in war, or during peace to signal annoyance with a co-riparian state
  5. Denial of hydrological data in critical seasons when the flow in the river very high is an instance
  6. Most Dangerous of all, China contemplating northward re-routing of the YarlungZangbo
  7. Diversion of the Brahmaputra is an idea China does not discuss in public, because it implies devastating India’s northeastern plains and Bangladesh, either with floods or reduced water flow

Geopolitical Significance-natural Buffer

A buffer zone is an intervening geographical area or entity which by reasons of geography and sometimes coupled with a political role denies territorial contact between geographical areas/entities on either side. This role is expected to diminish the possibility of conflict. This is further guaranteed if the buffer zone is a politico-geographical entity recognized by international law and the community of nations, (i.e. UN) thereby ensuring its territorial inviolability (breach of which would be tantamount to external invasion).

The frontiers and boundaries perform the function of separating emerging power cores. States enlarged and expanded and were able to do so because the frontiers were yet unclaimed regions, awaiting penetration and occupation. Finally, all the frontiers were invaded and were replaced by boundaries. The present day world map, thus, consists of a mosaic of contiguous areas and a few areas are being contested by adjacent powers and even these exceptions are also well defined in terms of their boundaries. The functions once performed by frontiers are no longer needed now and boundaries form the natural divider between States. But, apart from the boundaries, a new kind of zone came into existence, although like boundaries it was not easily discernible on the map.

In the politcogeographical evolution of the world, a time came when the States aligned themselves in groups or blocs based on strategic, economic, ideological and cultural considerations. This prompted the contesting blocs to create a number of zones between them. These zones create a number of States many times. These zones are not frontiers because they are defined and have well established political boundaries. Thus, they have been assigned the name “buffer zones”.

Some open space might function as a buffer zone in the form of cultural divide, for example, the Sahara desert which is an open empty space separating the “black Africa” with that of “white Africa”. This may be called a “naturalbuffer zone. However, most of the buffer zones have been artificially created. Tibet has been a natural buffer, which prevented any hostility between India and China.

However, China has long felt the need for a road across the Aksai Chin and the territory in Laddakh to ensure the safety at the road. This was the most important strategic consideration behind the Chinese invasion. The Chinese also felt that the Tibetan rebels and Khampas might use the territory for guerrilla warfare against the Chinese regime if it was not under their control.

Aksai Chin is a region located at the junction of the People’s Republic of China, Pakistan, and India. It is administered by China and claimed by India. Aksai Chin is one of the two main border disputes between India and China, the other being Arunachal Pradesh, Aksai Chin (which literally means ‘desert of white stones’) is a vast desert of salt. This land is also called the Soda Plain. The region is almost uninhabited. One of the proximate causes of the Sino-Indian War of 1962 was India’s discovery of a road China had built through the region, which India considers its territory. The road, which connects Tibet and Xinjiang, passes through the settlement of Tianshuihai, the only sizeable town in the region, with about 1600 inhabitants. Aksai Chin is currently under the administration of the People’s Republic of China, with the vast majority of it as a part of Hotan County, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, India claims the area as a part of Ladakh district of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The area is strategically important because it contains China National Highway 219, a major road between Tibet and Xinjiang. Both sides in the dispute have agreed to respect the Line of Actual Control and this dispute is considered very unlikely to result in actual hostilities.

China’s aim was the destruction of the natural buffer and creation of a razor sharp boundary between India and China, which it did.

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