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The Case for Tibet:
Re-evaluating America's position on the Tibet Question in the Post 9-11 Era
By Adam Masterman August 27, 2003


Of all the changes wrought upon this nation in the brief span of a few early morning hours in September of 2001, one of the most fundamental and wide reaching has been the re-emergence of foreign affairs as a topic of vital importance to national interest. With all the parallels being drawn between the present conflict and the 2nd World War, possibly the most apt and telling is that, once again, America understands that events abroad can and will affect us in a direct and serious way. This understanding exists in the minds of every citizen as a basic truth, one that 50 years of intermittent wars, experienced by the public only in the collective imaginary sphere of media, allowed us to forget. The events of September 11th have forced America to open her eyes to the world once more, and all of our answers to the standing geopolitical questions are going to have to be re-evaluated in light the seriousness of their implications, which we can no longer ignore. This is already happening to a large degree, for better or worse, throughout the Muslim world, which was the most predictable first response. However, the most basic truth revealed on 9-11; that our fate is inseparable from that of the world at large, demands that we take an active interest (if not an active role, per se) in all of the major geo-political developments occurring in the world today.

Considering this, one might initially conclude that the issue of Tibet, or "The Tibet Question" as it is commonly referred, should by its seemingly benign nature cease to be a priority (insofar as it is one) to American policy makers. A bare-bones outline of the problem could be presented in such a way as to support this idea:

Communist China forcibly took control of Tibet over fifty years ago and has ruled there to the present day. The spiritual and secular leader of Tibet, The Dalai Lama, went into political exile in India, along with about 100,000 Tibetans. Currently they are conducting a non-violent strategy for reclaiming a degree of their former sovereignty, a strategy which most of the world vocally supports while it politically ignores; a strategy that seems to be failing.

Now, the most obvious response to this situation, from the platform of American interest, is that this issue hasn't the potential to affect us directly in any meaningful way, and so while it may garner our sympathy, political capital is better spent on issues more pressing and with a greater probability of affecting us soon and directly. This essay is an attempt to argue the opposite; namely that the Tibet Question is and should be considered important to America. Furthermore, I will argue that a free and independent Tibet will best serve American interests in the region and the world at large. I have organized the remainder of this essay into separate but related defenses of this position, which I believe compel the United States to re-awaken its interest in this question, and soon.


"The Roof of the World" stands, quite literally, on the very pinnacle of Asia. All of the major Asian rivers originate there, 12,000 feet above their eventual goal at sea level. To its north lies Russia, to its east, China, and directly south is India; the perennial powers of the continent. Geographically, Tibet is their hub, and for the better part of the recently expired millennium she served as their buffer as well. For a number of geographic reasons, some of which apply to a much lesser degree in the modern times, this large and sparsely populated region has given breathing room to fierce rivals and prevented direct confrontation. The legitimacy of this assertion can be determined by the fact that, despite centuries of animosity, India and China had never fought a significant ground war while Tibet stood between them. Since the Chinese occupation began a mere 50 years ago, they have fought two. The loss of a neutral buffer in central Asia has cranked up the volume on international disputes there, contributing to spiraling destabilization and decreased common security. Ironically, one of our biggest concerns in that region, namely weapons of mass destruction in Muslim nations, can be traced directly back to the fall of independent Tibet, though that is rarely understood or even suggested. Consider: The nuclear escalation between India and Pakistan was of grave concern to the U.S. even before 9-11. Since then, fears have grown about the stability of the Pakistani regime, and whether or not these weapons might fall into the hands of extremists. However, we must remember that Pakistan was, in a sense, prompted into developing nuclear weapons by a surprising and unprecedented public nuclear display by her longtime enemy and neighbor India. Now, the security model of M.A.D. is well known after a half century of the world living under its shaky protection. So why would India, as we perceived, initiate such a dangerous escalation. While the American media was curiously disinclined to speculate on this question, it is actually quite obvious that the intended audience for such displays was not Pakistan at all. It was China.

China was already a nuclear power, and had been for some time (the exact details of their nuclear program are closely guarded). Furthermore, the acquisition of Tibet gave China a strategic advantage which must, to this day, generate significant alarm in New Delhi: By positioning nuclear missiles in Tibet (now within their sovereign borders), China can target India's capital and many of its centers of population and strategic importance with relatively short range delivery systems. The same is not true for India; even placing missiles at their closest point within Indian sovereignty, there are still more than twice as far from Beijing and other valuable targets. Thus, for India, the nuclear race had already started, and their tests were certainly seen by themselves as an attempt to balance the situation and secure their position relative to China. Of course, given the long-term conflict between India and Pakistan, the Pakistani response was surprising only in that it came so quickly.

It is an interesting counterfactual to this analysis to note that, had India invaded and occupied Tibet, the situation would be reversed in regards to the strategic location of nuclear weapons: Beijing would be close enough to Eastern Tibet to reach with relatively short range delivery systems, while New Delhi would be moved back out of reach by the same distance. This leads us to conclude that, not only was Tibet valuable as a geopolitical buffer zone, but that it acquisition by one of the powers it previously cushioned is an inherently dangerous and destabilizing development.

The China Problem

That Islamic terrorists might acquire WMDs from an unstable Pakistani government is certainly the possibility that most concerns the U.S. in the immediate sense. However, this is only one of many possible dangerous developments that can be legitimately tracedback to the loss of Tibet to Communist China. Chinese ambitions in Taiwan, for example, flow from the conviction that China is legitimate in extending its politicalcontrol over areas with which it has degrees of historical connection, a conviction strengthened by its unopposed conquest of Tibet. Of more pressing concern to the U.S., however, is an issue raised in the previous heading: China's own nuclear capabilities. Tibet's geographic location is not the only benefit it provides to the Chinese in their pursuit of nuclear capabilities. In fact, the most serious liability (or asset, for China) is that Tibet possesses rich stores of uranium and other radioactive materials that make the large-scale production of nuclear weapons possible. Indeed, Tibet's natural resources are unbelievably abundant: vast amounts of precious metals and gems, large amounts of easily accessible ore, and hundreds of thousands of acres of virgin forests and arable land. In China, the name used for Tibet is translated into English as "western treasure house", and it is a name both apt and revealing in how the Chinese regard this conquered land. Were it not for this abundant supply of nuclear materials, it might have been China, and not Iraq, who first began seeking these materials from Africa. As it stands, they will never need to do so.

The fact that terrorism has proved to be the most pressing and immediate concern for the U.S. does not diminish the fact that China is maneuvering to be a superpower to rival the old Soviet empire. The implications of this fact are and must be seen by America as extremely important to our national interest over the next century. As I said before, we can no longer pretend that foreign developments will affect us only obliquely or economically; our security and our fate as a nation are tied to the larger world.

The Moral Question

Some would argue that America cannot take foreign action on moral or ethical grounds alone; that these are too tenuous considering the cost of foreign engagements. President Bush himself, which campaigning, implied that he disagreed with foreign involvement for the sake of nation building (though he now finds himself engaged in exactly that and in two different places). And the idea of military action to liberate Tibet is not only questionable in its political sense, considering what it would cost to engage China directly, but probably a strategic impossibility. China's conventional army is much larger that our own, and though our military technology is superior, this does not insure in any way that we could force them from Tibet, any more than we could force the PLA from North Korea. However, there are more ways to accomplish the goal of an independent Tibet than force, if we decided to do so. Part of that decision, I believe, does and should involve the moral dilemma posed by a Chinese-occupied Tibet. The human rights abuses practiced there are well documented; a review of Amnesty International's reports over the last few decades will illuminate a consistent pattern of repression that runs contrary to nearly all of our cherished ideals as free, self-governing people. While we certainly haven't the resources to eliminate political oppression in the world, we have used this rationale as justification for many of our foreign policy actions, including (in part) the war in Iraq, or "Operation Iraqi Freedom". If this justification is to stand as a real commitment to world democracy and universal liberty, we must as a nation show that we support these ideals even when our own national security is not immediately threatened. Indeed, the problem of "breeding terrorists" can be blamed, in part, on the inconsistency the rest of the world sees in our foreign policy. By taking a stand on an issue of relatively little strategic importance, where the world clearly sees which party is the aggressor, the United States would gain valuable credibility on the world stage. Also, in doing so through U.N. established guidelines, we could re-enforce our commitment to world democracy, and there is ample procedural precedent for such an option. The U.N. charter outlines several criteria a nation should meet to be entitled to independent sovereignty, and Tibet meets nearly all of these: a separate, historically defined territory; a separate and distinct language, ethnic homogeneity which is different from the state which currently governs them, a separate and distinct majority religion, etc. Internal U.N. politics, specifically China's prominent role on the Security Council, have kept these issues from coming to light. However, the U.S. certainly could bring grievances to bear in the U.N. and make significant strides towards shifting world opinion. To do so has multiple appeal: we would be standing up for the ideals we rightly cherish and upon which we founded this nation; we would gain credence on the world stage as being a legitimate advocate for universal human rights and liberty independent of our more narrowly defined nation interests; and we would be sending a message of accountability to China that it actions which defy international law and human decency will not go unanswered.


In discussing his aspirations for the future of Tibet, H.H. the Dalai Lama outlined a plan for what he called a "Zone of Peace", in essence a modern democratic state which, geopolitically, would serve the same function that Tibet did historically: a buffer between major adversaries on the largest and most populous continent on Earth. This plan would not only secure Tibetan rights to self-government and freedom from oppression, it would serve the world by stabilizing an unstable region. It is my belief that it would also serve our own national interests in a long-term and overwhelmingly positive way. To quote His Holiness "Our own security is enhanced when peace breaks out between warring parties in other continents." My hope is that these benefits will be recognized by Americans instead of overlooked as we focus our attention like a laser on the most immediate and obvious problems. China has attempted, over the last half century, to remove the Tibet question from international debate through a variety of methods, many of them unjust and some downright tyrannical. To allow them to do so would be to allow injustice and tyranny the free hand they need to survive. Truly, "All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing". We create the world we live in each moment by our actions, and by our lack of action, whether on the global scale or the personal. Let us, in this case, try to create a world we will be proud to leave to our children, a world with security, liberty, and freedom for all peoples. America should be satisfied with nothing less.

Copyright © 2003 by Adam Masterman

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