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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Tibet’s role in China’s Belt and Road

November 13, 2017

By Tshering Chonzom Bhutia

Stiftung Asienhaus/China Dialogue, October 2017 - After  the  earthquake  in  Nepal  in  2015,  another  corridor  was  added  to  BRI,  the  India-Nepal-China  Corridor,  consisting  of  new  roads  and  rail  links  between  the three states. Nepal is one of several South Asian countries in which India and China compete for influence. 

Under  the  government  of  the  Nepalese  Prime  Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, Nepal and China signed a deal  that  allowed  the  extension  of  China’s  Tibet  railway line to Kathmandu in Nepal. The most spectacular idea is the construction of a railway tunnel through Mount Everest.

For  its  part,  the  leadership  of  the  Tibet  Autonomous  Region (TAR) has consistently underscored the importance  of  the  region  to  the  initiative.  In  January  2015,  the  third  plenary  session  of  the  10th  Tibet  People’s  Congress announced the launch of the so-called Himalayan Economic Rim project. The  report  adds  that  the  “Economic  Rim  will  be  directed  towards  markets  in the three neighboring countries of Nepal, India and Bhutan... to develop border trade, boost international tourism, and [cooperate] on strengthening industries such as Tibetan medicine and animal husbandry.” [1]

The report announcing the project noted that Tibet aimed to connect to BRI and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM).At  the  fifth  Tibet  Development  Forum  Liu  Yongfeng,  deputy  director  general  of  the  Department  of  External  Security  Affairs  at  the  Ministry  of  Foreign  Affairs  (MFA), called upon the TAR to “fully integrate into the ‘B&R.’” China Daily, went further to envision Tibet as playing a “significant role in connecting” the SREB and the MSR, given its unique location. [2]

Given this vision, it’s fair to ask about the capacity of the TAR to integrate with BRI.  In this context, would the region continue to act as a “bridge” to South Asia?  In other words, would the BRI merely pass through the region to trade with neighboring countries?

This has been particularly true of Nepal-China trade.  The  TAR  has  accounted  for  over  90  percent  of  China’s foreign trade with Nepal since the opening of the Golmud-Lhasa  railway  in  2006,  implying  that  the  railway  facilitated  the  transportation  of  goods  from coastal  China  to  the  TAR  and  on  to  Nepal.  Moreover, as  validated  by  the  BRI  Vision  Plan,  much  of  China’s  connection with South Asia through the TAR has been primarily with Nepal, both in terms of trade and connectivity. Plans to further improve connectivity are at an advanced stage.

On August 5, China Daily reported that China CAMC Engineering Co. and China Railway Construction Corp. have already applied to Nepal’s Railway Department for the construction of the Kathmandu-Rasuwagadhi railway. Given TAR’s status as a transit route, not an actual economic hub, it’s fair to ask how the bordering provinces  or  states  in  all  countries  involved  would  benefit.  Increased  development  and  enhanced  economic  opportunities  in  the  region  could  result  in  the  migration of more ethnic Chinese into the TAR, accelerating a process already of concern to Tibetans. Meanwhile, if these non-Tibetan migrants settle in the Indo-Tibetan border region, it could aggravate India’s security concerns.

As  if  by  design  to  preempt  some  of  these  concerns,  there  is  a  new  narrative  emerging    that  Tibet  is  not  necessarily  integral  to  the  BRI.  Yang  Minghong,  dean  and  professor  of  Social  Development  and  Western  China  Development  Studies  at  Sichuan  University,  clarified  during  a  meeting  at  the  Institute  of  Chinese  Studies (ICS) China’s ‘Belt and Road’Studies (ICS) on June 9 2016 that the central leadership has not said anything about Tibet’s importance to the initiative. Instead, it is the regional leaders who have been connecting Tibet to the BRI in order to get more funds.

From an Indian perspective, things do not add up.  If Tibet  and  other  western  Chinese  provinces  bordering  India are not seen as an important part of the BRI by the  central  leadership,  does  that  mean  the  constant  harping  on  Tibet  as  a  “bridge  to  South  Asia”  is  also  irrelevant?  The BRI Vision Plan seems to follow the new narrative. It views the TAR as connecting mainly to Nepal, while the role of “a pivot of China’s opening-up to South and southeast Asia” has been assigned to Yunnan province. [3]

In  contrast  to  Yang’s  analysis,  David  Monyae,  co-director  of  the  University  of  Johannesburg  Confucius  Institute in South Africa, while in Lhasa for the Development  Forum,  was  quoted  in  the  media  as  arguing  that “the success of the initiative [BRI] largely depends on how  China  manages  its  underdeveloped  western  regions such as Tibet.” [4]

The reports do not go into more detail, but generally the economic narrative for China’s west is as follows: The current slowdown (or the “new normal”)  is  leading  to  an  excess  in  China’s  manufacturing  capacity,  while  rising  labor  costs  are  putting  a  dent  in  the  profits  of  Chinese  enterprises  and  multi-national companies. Companies may consider moving their manufacturing units either inland, into China’s western regions, or overseas. In this light, China’s western provinces may assume an important place in the adjustment of China’s economy, and thereby the BRI.

Questions remain about the role of the TAR in the BRI.  What  sort  of  cross-border  trade  will  take  place  through  all  the  infrastructure  construction  underway  in  the  TAR?  Will  the  road  and  rail  network  inside  the  TAR  merely  facilitate  the  transportation  of  commodities from coastal China to India, thereby accentuating the trade imbalance, or will goods flow both ways?

Further, in order to ensure the free flow of goods, services,  and  people  across  the  Himalayas  and  between  India and China, a modicum of stability on the plateau is  a  prerequisite.  As long  as  India  remains  skeptical  of the BRI, and instability inside Tibet continues, the TAR’s  role  in  connecting  China  to  South  Asia  would  remain limited. China is not likely to allow the free passage of Tibetan people in and out of Tibet into South Asia, primarily India. Given this, people on both sides of the Himalayan border are likely to ask what the rails and roads are good for.

This article is an excerpt from “Silk road bottom-up: Regional perspectives on the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’” https://www.eu-china.net/uploads/tx_news/Broschuere_Silk_Road_Bottom-Up_2017_.pdf

Originally published:  Tshering  Chonzom  Bhutia,  Tibet and China’s ‘Belt and Road’, The Diplomat, 30.08.2016.

[1]   China   Tibet   Online,   Himalaya   Economic   Rim   project to be launched,  23.1.2015,  http:// eng.tibet.cn/news/1449501330103.shtml  

[2] China Tibet Online, Tibet envisioned as hub of Himalayas, 6.8.2016, http:// eng.tibet.cn/ news/1470448252648.shtml

[3]   National  Development  and  Reform  Commission,  Vision and  Actions  on  Jointly  Building  Silk  Road  Economic  Belt  and  21st-Century  Maritime  Silk  Road,  28.3.2017, 

http://en.ndrc.gov.cn/ newsrelease/201503/ t20150330_669367.html

[4]   China,   Forum aimed at Tibet development, 7.7.2016, http://www.china.org.cn/ china/2016-07/07/ content_38827061.htm

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