Why the Himalayan Region Is Integral to a Rules-Based Order in the Indo-Pacific

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Why the Himalayan Region Is Integral to a Rules-Based Order in the Indo-Pacific

Chinese militarization and expansionism in the Himalayas remains a perennial concern not just for India, but for the United States – and its Indo-Pacific allies and partners.

Why the Himalayan Region Is Integral to a Rules-Based Order in the Indo-Pacific
Credit: Depositphotos

In June 2024, former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi minced no words in criticizing the Chinese government and President Xi Jinping for the persecution of Tibetans, including attempts to erase their culture. Pelosi was part of a U.S. delegation that met with the 14th Dalai Lama in Dharamshala, India, where he has been living in exile since he was forced to flee Tibet in 1959 after an uprising against China’s repressive rule was brutally suppressed. China considers the Dalai Lama a dangerous separatist, and seeks to prevent all diplomatic contact with him. 

Pelosi’s acrimony went beyond empty rhetoric. Building on the U.S. Congress’ “Resolve Tibet Act,” passed only days before her visit to Dharamshala, she heralded stronger U.S. support for the Himalayan region, which China is trying to rebrand as “Xizang,” the Mandarin term for Tibet. Her remarks have yet again brought to the forefront the fact that Chinese militarization in Tibet remains a perennial concern not just for India, but for the United States – and its Indo-Pacific allies and partners. 

For China, Tibet is perhaps the most critical, but not the only, aspect of its growing Himalayan troubles. Most notably, China has a long-standing border dispute with India, which has kept getting more hostile since Xi Jinping came into power – recall the 2017 Doklam stand-off, the defining 2020 Galwan Clash, and the 2022 Tawang skirmish, to name but a few prominent contentions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Concurrently, China has been pursuing its “salami tactics” strategy with the neighboring states, including the small land-locked nation of Bhutan. Then there is the question of China’s increasingly unsustainable, “debt-trap”-inducing Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has already cast a dark shadow over economically weaker Himalayan states like Nepal and Pakistan. Most importantly, China’s massive hydro-infrastructure constructions and upper-riparian-derived unilateral control of South Asian rivers that begin in Tibet have raised serious questions about the impact on Himalayan ecology and control of resources.

Against such an overall bleak scenario, will the latest Pelosi visit engender greater geopolitical awareness and considered responses, beyond the human rights questions, in the West about China’s tactics? Importantly, can the Himalayas as a whole be featured as a primary focus of the Indo-Pacific strategies, not just as a byline to specific conflicts be it vis-à-vis India or Tibet?

Time to Talk About a Himalayan Liberal Rules-Based Order 

Pelosi’s remarks and meeting with the Tibetan Government in Exile evoke memories of her controversial 2022 visit to Taiwan, which intensified China’s military maneuvers against the democratic island and precipitated the so-called Fourth Taiwan Crisis. Not just Taiwan, but most countries in the Indo-Pacific, including South Korea – where President Yoon Suk-yeol opted not to meet the then-U.S. House speaker – worried about the repercussions on the region’s already fractious relations. 

Yet that trip brought unprecedented global attention to Taiwan, whose democratic credentials weighed heavy against China’s autocratic, disruptive rule, and the surrounding region, too. Such a tactic, in turn, has proved consequential for globally publicizing the Indo-Pacific’s maritime concerns, including the South China Sea disputes. Greater awareness in the international media about the repercussions of Chinese interference in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea has further popularized the Indo-Pacific construct. 

Yet much of the narrative has automatically assumed that a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific is primarily (and perhaps only) maritime in nature. This assertion is aided by the reality that the maritime trade routes would be directly affected by China’s actions, in turn impacting European/Western security and prosperity. 

Yet, were China to become the “Himalayan hegemon,” the consequences would be dire. The interdependent nature of the security dilemmas means that a rules-based order in the Himalayan region is imperative for the stability, security, and prosperity of the Indian Ocean, South China Sea, East China Sea, and the Taiwan Strait. 

A key reason why this connection has not yet been made as clearly is that the focus by the West on Tibet has remained limited to the human rights aspect, highlighting it as the central cause of concern in the Himalayas. Without taking away from the criticality of the human rights question, it is important to also connect the human rights violations to China’s broader geopolitical agendas in the Tibetan plateau, which need to be closely examined. 

Such a lens is critical for trans-Himalayan and Tibetan studies, wherein geopolitics has often come second to human rights and environmental debates, often missing the connection between these issues as grander security narratives. For instance, with respect to the succession of the 14th Dalai Lama, few studies have looked at the geopolitics associated with succession politics, which will directly impact the bilateral relationship of countries across the world with China. This has meant that nations remain unprepared to deal with the strategic realities of such a question – a fact China relies on to work in its favor. More widely, issues of militarization and securitization in Tibet and adjoining areas, as well as weaponization of natural resources, need to be discussed in tandem with climate/ecological degradation and human security aspects in the Himalayas to preserve the Indo-Pacific’s rules-based order. 

Due to the interconnected nature of regional stability and security, the Himalayas are a critical strategic region influencing major geopolitical dynamics. Tensions here can spill over, impacting maritime and territorial disputes in the Indo-Pacific. A liberal rules-based order in the Himalayas ensures consistent principles of international law, mutual respect for sovereignty, and conflict resolution mechanisms. Without this, the broader rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific remains fragile and susceptible to power imbalances and regional conflicts. Therefore, integrating Himalayan security within the Indo-Pacific framework fosters comprehensive regional stability, enhancing the credibility and effectiveness of a rules-based international order.

Securitization of the Restive Himalayas

In the 2000s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched its Western Development Strategy to offset the lack of economic growth in the western provinces, including the Buddhist-dominated Tibet and the Muslim-dominated Xinjiang, compared to the stupendous high-quality development in the eastern zones and the southern coast. Under this “Go West” policy, the Chinese government aimed its own funds, as well as foreign investment and development assistance in implementing the development of both coastal and inland areas, to replace perceived backwardness with modernization, including new infrastructure. Under Xi Jinping, large-scale development went on to incorporate eco-environmental protection ideals to further these aims “to achieve common prosperity for all the ethnic groups of the western region” – but more specifically the goal was to consolidate the frontier regions, often at the expense of the ecological needs of the region despite environment protection promises. For instance,  China’s extensive modern-day mega-dam building that began with the construction of the Three Gorges Dam has already disrupted biodiversity, as well as caused droughts, floods, earthquakes, and massive displacement of people.

In the more than two decades since the launch of the “Go West” campaign, the Chinese government has doubled down its pursuit of these aims, which remain laced with empty rhetoric. The main intent is to exploit the region’s abundant natural resources while building hard infrastructure to make civil-military logistics easier.  

To securitize and militarize the areas, China has implemented unsavory measures such as resettlements, intrusive laws, internment camps, forceful induction into the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), increased surveillance, and accelerated assimilation. Such tactics will not only help China’s government repress separatist tendencies among minority groups and neutralize their own respective languages and cultures but also help fortify the regions around the Himalayas with infrastructure that can be utilized to expand territory.

Similarly, the unabated infrastructure development, including airports/helipads, highways, oil pipelines, rail networks, and reservoirs, aimed at improving land-sea linkages is mainly a tool to expand “dual-use” of infrastructure – that is, national security interests – in the garb of socioeconomic growth. For example, China’s increase in railway construction in Tibet and “leapfrog development in general aviation” look to facilitate better access not just to neighboring provinces but also to land ports along the border areas for military purposes. 

Already, the increase in stationed PLA troops and even nuclear weapons have raised concerns about the impact of hyper-militarization on the fragile Himalayan region. China has in the past been accused of “conducting nuclear-weapons research on the Tibetan plateau and dumping radioactive waste” and also of building an “immense military bastion with tactical missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles.” 

Another vital geopolitical aim is to enable this region’s active participation in the BRI, via initiatives such as the “Western Region Land-Sea Corridor” development announced in 2019. This would improve connectivity and integration between China’s poorer, restive regions with both the well-to-do eastern and southern provinces and countries in Eurasia, Central Asia, and South Asia, as connected by the expansive BRI. Through avenues like the  “Himalayan Quad” China has sought to establish with South Asian countries Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, where Beijing has immense economic clout, it has sought to further the geopolitically motivated aspects of BRI into greater intent. 

Similarly, China’s use of its position as the “upstream water hegemon” – with six major Asian rivers originating in the Tibetan Plateau flowing into nearly 18 downstream countries – has aimed at controlling access and prioritizing its own “water sovereignty.” China has a history of weaponizing water to achieve its national interests as seen, during Doklam clash of 2017 with India.  

Furthermore, China has been indulging in rewriting Himalayan territorial borders, e.g., by issuing “standard maps” (e.g., showing India’s Arunachal Pradesh and the disputed Aksai Chin plateau as Chinese territory) and by expanding into Bhutanese territories. These moves call into question Xi’s stated aim of building a “community of shared future among neighboring countries.”

Aiming Beyond Rhetoric

Optimistically, one can hope that the latest round of support for Tibet in the U.S. Congress and the U.S. delegation’s visit to the Tibetan Government in Exile would usher in a new wave of international action and attention, including more foreign delegations, as happened with Taiwan in 2022. But more importantly, it should initiate a multiplicity of debates questioning not just China’s long-standing repressive actions – from unfettered territorial expansion and instability to overexploitation and access to natural resources – but also the international community’s tacit silence regarding Himalayan issues. For instance, the EU, which despite its focus on human rights in Tibet is only starting to recognize Chinese coercion globally, may also facilitate discussions in the European Parliament around the aforementioned Himalayan concerns with broader implications.

It is important to note that none of the major concerns regarding China in the Himalayas are new. For example, China has used Tibet and Xinjiang for nuclear bases since before 1964; the Tibetans have hence long worried about the militarization of the region. Old reports dating back to the 1980s highlighted how it is not just the Indian cities and industrial centers that are possibly within the range of China’s nuclear strikes, but also “all the major cities of Central Asia,” highlighting the interconnectedness of security debates.  

Undoubtedly, in era of Chinese military modernization under Xi, the threat has only accelerated. For instance, satellite imagery in Bhutanese territory has confirmed China’s aggressive push to change the status quo in the Himalayas.

If the United States and democracies in Asia and Europe such as the EU states, India, and Japan, are serious about the intent to preserve a rules-based order, then they must acknowledge that the threat from China is not limited to its so-called autonomous regions in the Himalayas or the neighboring states, but covers China’s multidirectional expansionism, which has been going on for years. Given the current sliding geopolitical landscape and Xi’s focus on achieving his “China Dream” goals, including national rejuvenation and integration, the Indo-Pacific democracies have no choice but to put impetus into examining and upending China’s attempts at sinicizing the Himalayan (dis)order. 

This piece is an outcome of the “China’s Himalayan Hustle” research project by the Stockholm Center for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs at the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP), Sweden.