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Walker's World: China's new enemies

October 21, 2009

United Press International (UPI)
October 19, 2009

VIENNA, Oct. 19 (UPI) -- Something deeply
alarming is under way on the roof of the world.
It is not simply the Obama administration's
difficult Afghan dilemma that makes the vast
Himalayan massif the world's most pivotal region.
Suddenly, as when one loose rock triggers a
mountain landslide, a handful of small
developments are combining to produce a highly
volatile situation with potentially disastrous consequences.

Three years ago Chinese engineers began a series
of surveys of the headwaters of a Tibetan river
known in India as the Brahmaputra and known as
Yarlung Tsangpo to the Tibetans. Alarm bells rang
in India and Bangladesh at the possibility that
China might be planning to dam the river, which
is a major and irreplaceable source of their fresh water.

Chinese government officials insisted these were
simply surveys. No dam was planned, and a
mechanism of consultation over water and rivers
between New Delhi and Beijing was set in train.
This "expert-level mechanism" was designed to
discuss trans-border river issues in an
institutional way, and there have been three
formal meetings, according to India's Foreign
Ministry. At each meeting "the Chinese side has
categorically denied that there is a plan to
build any such large-scale diversion project on the Brahmaputra River."

India remained skeptical. Last year Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh was in Beijing for the
ASEM summit meeting and devoted almost the whole
of his bilateral session with Chinese President
Hu Jintao to the waters of the Brahmaputra and
China's plans for dams. At the same time, there
is growing tension on the disputed Indo-Chinese
border in India's Arunachal Pradesh province,
where China has even protested a recent visit by
Singh and has tried to block Asian Development Bank projects.

Now India has the evidence. China began pouring
concrete for the Zhangmu hydroelectrical project
on April 2, under a $150 million contract with
the China Gezhouba Group along with NIDR (China
Water Northeastern investigation, design and
research) and the Huaneng power group. The dam,
the first of a planned five, will be 118 meters
high, and the whole complex should produce 540 MW
of power. The Tibetans have told the Indians this
has been long planned, and that the Nanshan
Regional Administration issued orders two years
ago for evacuation of people from the area.

China is desperate for water and is prepared to
be very tough with its neighbors about securing
it. China's dams on the upper Mekong have reduced
that river's flows so severely that the
traditional Luang Prabang river festival has had
to be canceled for lack of water flow. But the
Brahmaputra is close to a matter of life or death for India and Bangladesh.

The broader context of this is even more alarming
because China is looking once more like an
imperial power in both Tibet and Central Asia.
Unrest among Tibetans and among China's Uighur
minority of Muslims has been sternly repressed in
the last two years, and China is starting to pay
a diplomatic price for this. Turkish Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Beijing of
"a kind of genocide" against the Uighurs and
referred the crackdown to the United Nations.

This month al-Qaida's leading theologian, Abu
Yahya al-Libi, who is seen as a possible
successor to Obama bin Laden, declared holy war
against China for its "satanic oppression of
Muslims in Xinjiang." Al-Libi, who became a
radical Islamist hero after escaping U.S. custody
at the Bagram air base prison in Afghanistan in
2005, was a Libyan-born chemistry student who
joined the Afghan mujahedin in the 1980s.

"The state of atheism is heading to its fall.
China will share the same fate as the Russian
bear," al-Libi said in a speech posted as video
and text on Islamic militant Web sites. He went
on to accuse China of trying to "sever the link
between the people and their history" as a part of the Muslim world.

Al-Libi's speech, produced and distributed over
the Web by al-Qaida's media wing al-Sahab, was
titled "East Turkistan, the Forgotten Wound." In
it he repeated Uighur claims that Beijing was
seeking to swamp them and their culture and
religion by flooding the region with ethnic
Chinese Han immigrants. The Chinese were given
"jobs and homes and farms and lands that it
forcibly expropriated from the hands of their
Muslim Turkestani owners," al-Libi said.

East Turkestan is a name that Beijing angrily
rejects, and China was successfully able to
persuade the United States to describe the East
Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terrorist
organization. Although rooted among the Uighurs,
ETIM is supposedly now based as an organization
in Pakistan's North-West Frontier tribal
districts alongside al-Qaida and Taliban sympathizers.

This all makes for a heady brew, in which the
great power tensions between India and China
swirl alongside both China's colonial challenges
in Tibet and Xinjiang and China's daunting
environmental problems. Although China shrugs off
Western critiques of its human-rights policies,
it is not accustomed to being targeted as an
imperial power by other developing countries in
the way that Turkey has done, and the Beijing
regime's dependence on imported oil complicates
its relationship with the Islamic world.

So from the headwaters of the Brahmaputra to the
cave refuges of al-Qaida, and from the Indian
border to the ditches that irrigate the rice
paddies of Bangladesh, China's geopolitical
future is taking on some ominous and potentially
new forms. And despite Beijing's vaunted strategy
of a "peaceful rise" as its economic growth
propels it to great-power status, China is making some very worrying enemies.
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