Tibet’s Place in China’s ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative

Tshering Chonzom Bhutia, PhD, Associate Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies

By now, China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) is familiar to scholars and officials around the world. It has become the catchphrase for all of China’s international outreach, including conferences, seminars, and delegation visits to and from China. However, China has not completely reassured its neighbors. The various terms and phrases that have been used to refer to this idea embody the contention surrounding it – from the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and Maritime Silk Route (MSR), to One Belt One Road (OBOR), to the current BRI. More broadly, some describe it as “strategy,” others call it a “project” with the Chinese now settling on “initiative.”

Having played an important role in the whole Silk Route trade route historically, India finds China’s attempt to revive it in the modern context without any consultation with Delhi troubling. The best explanation that is now being provided by Chinese officials and scholars when questioned about the nature and intent of the BRI is that the plan is driven by domestic factors, namely the slowdown of the Chinese economy. In this context, how integral are China’s western provinces to the success of the BRI?

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,” though the precise route is not yet known. According to Chinese media reports, the “Himalayan Economic Rim refers to [land] ports in Tibet including Zham, Kyirong, and Purang economically supported by Shigatse and Lhasa.” 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.” The report announcing the project noted that Tibet aimed to connect to OBOR and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM).

Further, both the fifth Tibet Development Forum held in Lhasa from July 7-8 and the sixth International Forum on Tibetan Studies held in Beijing from August 2-4 discussed the BRI at length. Both are important recurring conferences, with their latest iterations hosting 130 and 325 scholars, respectively. On August 6, Xinhua reported that the attendees at the Beijing Conference suggested that Tibet could “take advantage” of the BRI. China Daily went further to envision Tibet as playing a “significant role in connecting” the SREB and the MSR, given its unique location.

At the Lhasa Forum, Liu Yongfeng, deputy director general of the Department of External Security Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), in a presentation titled “Opening up and Development of Tibet: The New Vision of the Belt and Road” stated, “Tibet was once the gateway to … South Asia, and so it is now.” Liu called upon the TAR to “fully integrate into the ‘B&R.’” Given Liu’s official position, the presentation suggests some level of attention from the central leadership.

Given this vision, it’s fair to ask about the capacity of the TAR to integrate with BRI. Tibet, after all, is not known for housing industries that can carry out large-scale production for export. The China Daily article referenced earlier acknowledges that “most of the trading goods are not made in Tibet,” although one scholar argues Tibet should increase its exports of locally-made goods.

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 neighbouring 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 Xining-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 the 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 concerning 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) on June 9 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.

Similarly, Ji Zhiye, president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), one of the most influential and authoritative think tanks in China, speaking at ICS on 6 August 2016 called it a “misperception” that if the BRI goes through Xinjiang or Tibet it will help to improve their economies. Ji concluded, “It is not like BRI will stimulate growth in these regions.” He clarified instead that there is already a modicum of growth taking place in these regions and therefore, they do not need the BRI as such, even while arguing that the BRI, by the sheer nature of its emphasis on connectivity, would have some impact on the momentum for growth in these regions.

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? With or without the BRI, what is the purpose of all the emphasis on connectivity in the TAR if not to facilitate trade with neighbouring countries, including India?

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. It seems the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor (BCIM), which positions Yunnan as the Chinese hub, is being considered as the torchbearer as far as exchanges with India are concerned. Even so, once the TAR is integrally connected to Kathmandu through rail, India’s northern states of Bihar, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim, and West Bengal would be within close reach. The Yunnan route only connects to Northeast India, and the BCIM itself is currently in a state of uncertainty owing to China’s decision to lump it together with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) under the BRI framework.

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.” 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 multinational 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.

Originally published as Tshering Chonzom Bhutia, ‘Tibet and China’s “Belt and Road”, The Diplomat, 30 August 2016.

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