China has now joined the Soviet Union and the United States on the list of big powers having spectacular trouble bending small ``neighbors'' to their wishes. With the Soviet Union, the problem is Afghanistan. With the US, it is Nicaragua. With China, the headlines are about a resurgence of native nationalism in Tibet so vigorous that the Chinese police station in Lhasa, the capital, has been burned in rioting, and all foreign correspondents have been hustled away to avoid unwanted attention to such measures as the Chinese government is taking to reestablish effective Chinese control.
Although Tibet is a province of China, the problem is the same in all three cases. Big powers like to have friendly, compliant, and culturally compatible small neighbors. They dislike having those neighbors develop special relations with rival great powers.
But down through the ages the small neighbors have struggled to be independent of the neighboring great power, and have frequently looked to the remote power rival for aid and comfort.
That tendency, on the part of the small neighbor, always raises the ``security'' issue for the great power. The US asserts its ``security'' needs to justify supporting the contra rebels fighting the Nicaraguan government. The Soviet Union thinks its ``security'' requires control over Afghanistan. China has its own ``security'' interests in Tibet.
In the case of Tibet, China has reason to worry about ``security.''
At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union showed a lively interest in four major pieces of Asian real estate that had traditionally been associated with China: Manchuria, Mongolia, Sinkiang, and Tibet. In 1945, Russia briefly occupied Mongolia. It still holds Outer Mongolia. It set up ``joint stock companies'' with the Chinese in Sinkiang and Tibet.
The Chinese have ever since been reclaiming as much as possible of these territories.
It took China until 1955 to get the Soviets out of Manchuria. It liquidated the ``joint-stock companies'' in Sinkiang at about the same time. It annexed Tibet in 1951. The Chinese do not want the Soviets back in Tibet, which is the perfect launching platform for invading China from the southwest.
Of the three powers, the US is, of course, the most tolerant and relaxed. Its official policy toward all small neighbors to the south is that of the ``good neighbor.'' It tolerates a flagrantly unfriendly regime in Cuba. It uses proxies, not its own armed forces (as yet), in its efforts to unseat the unfriendly regime in Nicaragua.
Neither the Soviet Union nor China would be so temperate. The Soviets simply took the three unhappy Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia by force. They have also imposed conformity with their religion (communism) on Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria.
China handled Tibet with some lenience from 1951 to 1959. An uprising in 1959 changed all that. From 1959 through the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), China did its best to stamp out Tibetan nationalism entirely. Thousands were killed, the Dalai Lama fled to India. Almost all the monasteries were liquidated and the buildings frequently pulled down. Large numbers of Han Chinese were sent, in effect, to colonize Tibet.
After the death of Mao Tse-tung, Chinese policy softened, which created a climate in which Tibetan nationalism could revive - as it has. Now we shall find out whether China has learned something from the experience of others about handling in a more tolerant fashion the problem of the nonconforming small neighbor.
The English could tell the Chinese something about such matters. They spent 652 years trying to consolidate their control over Ireland. The first English invasion of Ireland was in 1170. The English finally granted independence to Ireland (the Irish Free State), an independence that Northern Ireland's Protestants rejected in 1922. English rule had nourished Irish nationalism.
Both Russian and British armies invaded Afghanistan during the 18th and 19th centuries - always at high cost. One British army reached Kabul, but only a single survivor got back alive to India to tell the tale.
The Soviets are now trying to negotiate a withdrawal under terms guaranteeing the continuation of a communist regime. Pakistan and the US have so far insisted on terms that would probably mean a restoration of true independence to the Afghans.
The US government is now trying to arrange a solution in Nicaragua that would lead to a noncommunist government there. The outcome is still in doubt.