As His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, celebrated his 81st birthday on 6 July, China chose to coincide the occasion by showcasing its latest initiative of heightening military presence and focus in Tibet, with a broadcast of raising the Tibet Military Command’s power rank, and underlining the enhanced military readiness of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) inside Tibet.
Reportage coming from China suggests that the Tibet Military Command’s authority level has been upgraded, and it now comes under the jurisdiction of the PLA Ground Forces. This implies that the Tibet Military Command will be shouldering a greater degree and number of combat assignments and missions, while simultaneously increasing control of the region’s military resources.
In political translation, the Tibet Military Command’s political rank has been elevated to one level higher than its counterpart provincial-level military commands, said the China Youth Daily. The report got ostensibly verified when Zhao Zhong, deputy director of the Political Works Department of the Tibet Military Command stated, “The elevation of the authority level is not only an improvement for the troops’ designation, but also an expansion of their function and mission.” Following the recent announcement of perhaps the largest military reforms undertaken by China, nearly all provincial military commands now fall under jurisdiction of the newly established National Defense Mobilization Department. This comes under the highest state military organ commanding China’s armed forces, i.e., the Central Military Commission (CMC), with priority given to the region’s militia reserves and recruitment.
The decision to elevate Tibet’s Military Command is prospectively expected to have a spillover impact on the other restive northwestern region, Xinjiang, with it receiving a parallel upgrade also. China has inaugurated five new theatre commands of the PLA, which replace the seven previously existing military regions, with both Tibet and Xinjiang being clubbed under the new Western Theatre Command, headquartered at Chengdu, Sichuan Province. Although the role of most provincial military commands will be diminished, the Tibet Military Command continues to hold a vital position.
The tight-fisted consolidation of China’s political and military control over its restive western regions is becoming increasingly lucid, and underlines the repeated calls made by the senior military leadership “to redouble efforts towards contributing to develop” the western regions. The military commands in Tibet and Xinjiang have perennially enjoyed special political status in the past and the latest upgrade of the military command reflects a continuation of China’s stated policy for its West.
The message, when decoded, reads—China will ensure that all pending issues and disputes involving Tibet and Xinjiang, internally and externally, shall be resolved as per Beijing’s terms, conditions, and interests, most significantly, at a time of its choosing.
The Chinese government has invested heavily on logistics and infrastructure development throughout western China. From a military perspective, the infrastructure and logistics build-up shall double up as critical base support for China’s military, and contribute towards improving the rapid deployment capability of China’s integrated forces. More significantly, the ability to swiftly move heavy equipment, to and from the region, has received a major boost because of the infrastructure build-up.
The strategy to accentuate development of China’s western frontier including six provinces of Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, Guizhou, Sichuan and Yunnan; one municipality, Chongqing; and three autonomous regions, Ningxia, Xinjiang and Tibet, has been well conceived and executed. Although the strategy included providing preferential policy treatment to the western region, relaxed taxation rates, land use rights, easier availability of bank loans and aiding fiscal transfers to western China, it has been an abject failure at providing all-inclusive growth, especially for the local ethnic population residing in these parts of China.
Recall a statement by Xu Qiliang, Vice Chairman of the CMC that “…the development and stability of western regions are of strategic importance to national security…the military needs to make utmost efforts to maintain border security”. The assertion reiterates the policies of successive political and military leaderships in China, certifying that the western development strategy shall continue and guarantee firm control of both, the Party, and the State.
Notwithstanding that Xi Jinping’s political standing and control pronounce him as China’s most powerful ruler since Deng Xiaoping, and possibly even since Mao Zedong, the concurrent tightening of control and brute crackdown against political dissent and activism simultaneously brings to light the nation’s turbulent political past. It is time the Chinese leadership comprehends that beastly assertion of military control and repression of ethnic communities can never be a long-term solution to the endemic problems that grip western China today.