Dominating the headwaters


SINGAPORE — The recent anti-Chinese protests in Tibet and several surrounding provinces in China have been watched with concern by governments in nearby South and Southeast Asia, especially India. But unlike faraway Europe and the United States, their priority in Tibet is stability, not human rights.

China’s rapid rise as an economic giant is having mainly beneficial effects in South and Southeast Asia. Trade, investment and tourism with China has mushroomed, promoting growth in the region while Western demand slows due to the U.S. economic slump and the credit crisis.

However, sustained growth enables China to modernize its armed forces as well as it economy. Earlier this month, Beijing announced plans to raise military spending by nearly 18 percent this year, to $59 billion, marking the 20th consecutive year that China’s defense budget has increased by double digits. India, in particular, does not want to see Beijing given an internal security pretext to move more Chinese forces into Tibet, which was occupied by China in 1960.

China used its Tibetan territory to fight a border war with India in 1962 and Beijing still claims 90,000 square kilometers of land in the eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, saying it is part of Tibet. In response, India is building new roads to the border and adding to its military presence in the state. India also says China is occupying 38,000 square kilometers of its territory in Kashmir illegally ceded by Pakistan.

Since the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, fled to India with his followers in 1959, New Delhi has had to juggle China relations with the decision to allow the Tibetan god-king and his government-in-exile to base themselves at Dharamsala in northwest India, not far Tibet.

But in the recent unrest, New Delhi has been careful not to rile China. It protected the Chinese Embassy in India and prevented other Tibetan protesters from marching into Tibet. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said he appreciated the steps taken by India to limit the activities of the “Dalai clique,” which, Beijing claims, is seeking Tibet’s independence.

From China’s perspective, national unity is challenged by separatists in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, another nominally autonomous region north of Tibet. In Tibet and Xinjiang, indigenous groups chafe under repressive Chinese rule and resent the large-scale settlement of Han Chinese. Both regions are strategically vital for China.

Xinjiang is a treasure trove of oil, gas and minerals. It is also China’s gateway to its ally Pakistan and to energy-rich Central Asia. Chinese government geologists reported last year that they had found huge resources of copper, lead, zinc and iron ore in Tibet — minerals that China must now import on a large scale from foreign suppliers.

In addition, Tibet is the source and store of much of China’s fresh water.

This makes China the dominant headwater power in Eurasia, giving it control over the upper reaches of some of the great rivers that flow into South and Southeast Asia, sustaining people, agriculture and industry there.

The Brahmaputra, Mekong and Salween rivers all start in the glaciers and snow-fed highlands on the “roof of the world,” the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. China, short of both electricity and water, is in the midst of a massive dam-building program. Hydropower generators on rivers in China presently provide about 100 million kilowatts of electricity, about 23 percent of total capacity. The government has said it plans to triple hydropower supply by 2020. The project includes a series of huge dams on Chinese sections of the Mekong and Salween rivers that downstream countries in Southeast Asia fear will affect the amount and quality of water they receive.

This is an aspect of growing Chinese influence on nearby nations that is frequently overlooked and therefore underestimated. It was an underlying concern for downstream states as leaders of the six Mekong countries — China, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam — met in Vientiane on Sunday and Monday to review progress in improving river basin management and integrating their economies. Given China’s growing clout, they were unlikely to make much of a fuss.

Michael Richardson, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a security specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.