Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Modest Proposal on Tibet

Some believe the Tibet issue can't be solved because of issues of national identity, and others say it can't be solved simply because of politics. I have a proposal that could bring peace and stability to the Tibetan region... if Chinese officials are willing to put politics aside and take tough action.

The answer lies in a strange place. In International Relations, we rely heavily on case studies to look for consistencies between two situations, and try to make predictions about how a force in one time and place, duplicated, might affect a different one. In this case, the answer lies in a stunning success story where a country lost sovereignty but maintained its culture and nationalism, without abandoning pride for its overlords. The answer for Tibet lies in Scotland.

Scotland was conquered by the English time and again until they were formally subdued as the United Kingdom in 1707, despite wide Scottish protests. (For a concise history of Scotland, Wikipedia is a fine source.) The Scots have since lived with English rule in relative peace, despite a very strong national Scottish identity. Why?

The Scots are free to call themselves Scottish, make fun of the English, fly the Scottish flag, send Scottish divisions (with Scottish flags and regalia) to British military exercises, and send their own national teams to many tournaments (like the Six Nations Rugby League). These may seem small concessions, but we must remember that feeling like one's national identity is respected and one's national culture is free to live and grow is one of the big reasons modern nationalism exists.

The other is the idea of self-rule; that a people with a shared heritage, language, culture, etc, are best at governing themselves, and that it is right to. This concept is rather new in the world, and is part of the liberalism movement of the 20th century. Why did Scotland not fight to break free of the UK in the 20th century and attain self-rule? The first answer is economic; being a part of the UK gives Scotland total access to a juggernaut economy, joint defense that reduces defense spending, and economic assistance from London when it seems necessary.

The second reason is that the British have met the Scots halfway. The Scottish have their own parliament--though it is small and subordinate to the London parliament (you will notice the UK flag flies higher than the Scottish one), it creates local and private law that is different from England. Scots run Scottish courts and local offices. Scotland exists somewhere between a British Commonwealth and an American State, but it is wholly recognized as an integral part of the UK, and not a sovereign nation. This compromise allows London to enjoy sovereignty over Scotland in all ways it wants: economic aggregation, tax collection, military recruitment, and singular, London-based foreign policy, while allowing the Scots a level of national identity and self-control that makes them content (if not always thrilled).

To see whether this system could be implemented in Tibet, we must know why the Chinese are so desperate to hold onto it. The Chinese claim absolute sovereignty precedence over Tibet, but it is my opinion that they have no more claim to historical sovereignty over Tibet than they do over Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Mongolia, and parts of Russia; the Qing empire indeed extended far, and subordinated many "vassal states," but the Chinese have been willing to watch many of these former vassals fly off into their own nations. So the Chinese government talks a great deal of historical sovereignty, and uses it as a moral justification for Tibet, but it is slightly dubious--during the Late Qing and Republican periods, Tibet enjoyed total sovereignty, and it signed many treaties with other countries that the Chinese allowed (at the time) to happen.

Nonetheless, sometimes, conquering has (in the past) been a legitimate way of claiming sovereignty. The United States conquered all of its current territory from America's original inhabitants over a period of a few hundred years. The Russian Federation certainly came to be thanks to Russian Imperial expansion. I have no intentions of saying that China's claims on Tibet are illegitimate; only that they are worth debating. I do not have a normative answer on whether China's sovereignty over Tibet is legitimate in a cosmic sense; that is not the point of this exercise. The point is to show that China was willing to give up Southeast Asia but not Tibet, despite similar historical sovereignty. So that is not the answer in explaining China's heated defense of its Tibet stance; something else must be.

Tibet, like Xinjiang, is a large, sparsely populated area. Unlike even Xinjiang, it does not have oil or gas reserves. It has little economic value; but its strategic value is enormous. Tibet's southern regions are the tallest and most treacherous mountains in the world, and the sparse population north of them leaves little to find even if they are crossed from the south. This means any invading army (particularly from India) would not only struggle to cross, but find it impossible to continually supply any extended operation. Holding Tibet means that China's population centers are completely secure from the southwest, that no army on earth could successfully invade from that direction (Xinjiang's harshness and emptiness make the northwest a similarly difficult assault, though not quite so. To the south, China has thick and disease-ridden jungles--think Vietnam. To the northeast, Russia is far from its center and would have to supply an operation through Siberia, and to the east lies the Pacific).

Tibet is critical to Securing China. Remember the Century of Shame; invasion after invasion from the West and Japan, countless Chinese were killed, and the Chinese people were abused and treated as animals. The PRC's Communist Party rose to power under the promise that it would prevent such shame from ever happening again. Through developing as strong army and navy, developing the economy, pursuing an aggressive foreign policy, spending money on "respect" diplomacy (like the Olympics), and securing its strategic borders, the Chinese government is fulfilling its promise to keep the Chinese people safe through making China strong.

So holding Tibet is critical not only because of its great strategic importance, but because the Chinese, 50 years ago, demarcated their official boundaries, and dramatically stepping back from those boundaries would show weakness and an apparent willingness to cede territory for the sake of pleasing the West--something the Chinese simply are unwilling to do (luckily, the Chinese need for consistency on this map has led them to make no new territorial claims since the 1950's, as well, and this is a very good sign that Chinese territorial ambitions are not growing: here is the official Chinese map for the last 50 years). Tibet will never become sovereign, and that must be clear to all.

But we should hope that the Tibetan people can live prosperous lives of religious and cultural freedom, that the Dalai Lama can return to lead his people, that the ethnic tension and government crackdowns can end. Because granting Tibet sovereignty is simply out of the question (and anyone that thinks otherwise is naive), I believe the "Scottish Model" is by far the best solution.

The Scottish Model would not keep China from exerting its military and foreign policy rights over Tibet; that is, keeping foreign armies from slowly infiltrating in and setting up bases. It would not even keep China from taxing and regulating Tibet, although doing either gives the Chinese government minimal benefit.

But Chinese crackdowns on independence movements have been increasingly harsh, and the Chinese have used heavy-handedness and cultural genocide to try and annihilate the Tibetan independence movement, rather than alleviate it through other means. Unfortunately, this action has caused many Tibetans to believe that independence is the only way that the Tibetans can have religious and cultural freedom, and safety from Chinese crackdowns. This is not actually true, but the Chinese government is mostly responsible for making that point of view proliferate through Tibet in the last 20 or 30 years, when it could have been calming tensions instead.

The other problem the Chinese government has made for itself has been tying its own hands on the Tibetan issue through using nationalism. By pushing nationalism to the Chinese people as the fundamental reason for holding Tibet, they have driven Chinese public opinion towards an uncompromising stance. This is useful in helping the Chinese government justify more crackdowns, but makes things extremely difficult if the Chinese government is to try a more moderate and pragmatic approach. The Chinese people are already restless (over oil shortages, labor conditions, and public opinion turning against China before the Olympics); now is certainly not the time to try anything too new with Tibet. A Scottish Model would have to wait.

But a future Tibet that truly exists as an Autonomous Region (which it normatively should), with its own local parliament, a return of the Dalai Lama, and full religious freedom, is certainly functionally feasible. It would not keep China from enjoying the strategic advantages of holding Tibet. Furthermore, if the Chinese practice good border security, the Tibetan people will not have an increased ability to arm themselves to make too much pro-independence trouble.

Chinese fears of a full Tibetan uprising are likely to keep a Scottish Model from occurring in anything but the very far future. The tragedy of the current policy is that it's the very reason that pro-independence movements get so much support in Tibet and abroad. If the Chinese do not change their policy, Tibet will be a constant problem, a constant drain on government resources, and a constant Public Relations club that beats the Chinese face bloody. The Scottish Model solution would deligitimize the Tibetan independence movement abroad, and give the next generation of Tibetans much less to be restful about. It would cause Western countries to re-think their stance on China's human rights record, and make it much easier for China to achieve East Asian hegemony peacefully, as it hopes to.
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