The United States recently passed the Tibetan Policy and Support Act that allows the US to impose sanctions and visa restrictions on Chinese officials, if they try to interfere in the reincarnation, or selection, of the next Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhists. It was passed by the House and Senate as an amendment to the $1.4 trillion government-spending bill and the $900 billion coronavirus relief package. With the backing of both Republicans and the Democrats, who control the House, it is expected to be signed into law by US President Donald Trump. Lobsang Sangay, the President of the Tibetan-government-in-exile, called it “a momentous landmark for the Tibetan people.”
This follows the October move by the US to appoint Robert Destro, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, as the special coordinator for Tibetan issues. Before that in July, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said that the US would restrict visa access for some Chinese officials involved in blocking diplomatic access to Tibet and had engaged in human rights abuses there.
Criticising the bill, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Tuesday that matters concerning Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong are China’s internal affairs, and the US should stop meddling in them.
While India has nothing to lose with the US extending support to human, political & religious rights in Tibet, whose government-in-exile it hosts, there is not muchy India can do to use it in its favour without suffering huge losses itself. Over the years, India has become a passive supporter of Tibet and that is due to this very reason.
Why is this bill important?
Avinash Godbole, assistant professor at OP Jindal Global University who was previously at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) and Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), thinks this is more than just words from the US. He says, “China’s assimilationist tactics in Xinjiang and now increasingly in Tibet in the form of ‘urbanisation’ have been reacted to by the US. The recent outburst and calls for boycotting the movie Mulan is one example. Forbidding US companies from doing business with the Chinese administration in Xinjiang or otherwise is another. These are good strong signs which should have come years earlier.”
He points out that the appointment of Robert A. Destro as the country’s Coordinator for Tibetan Issues should also strengthen US interest in the region once again. “While its consequences may be seen a bit later, but it signals that such postures that had disappeared from the US-China discourse over the last decade-plus are back. This punctures China’s harmonious development discourse and highlights the idea that China’s rise is neither normal nor acceptable.”
Mohan Malik, sinologist and Visiting Fellow at the NESA Center for Strategic Studies and author of China and India: Great Power Rivals (2011), says that President-elect Joe Biden is likely to abandon some of Trump’s Tibetan initiatives (for instance, special coordinator for Tibet) in order to reset ties with China. However, faced with China’s all-out drive for total assimilation and sinification of ethnic minorities, and the bipartisan support in the Congress for protecting human rights, he believes that the Biden administration will continue targeted sanctions against offending Chinese officials engaged in persecution of Uyghur, Tibetan and other minorities.
There could be a partial rollback of executive measures to distance himself from Trump, but to continue with sanctions against officials so as to retain legislative (Congress’) support.
What does it mean for India?
China invaded Tibet in 1950 in a move it calls a “peaceful liberation”. The Dalai Lama fled Tibet with an entourage of his followers and took exile in India in 1959 after an uprising against China failed.
India’s hands, however, are pretty much tied when it comes to using this American bill to its own benefit. Malik says that while “Tibet lies at the heart of China-India relations and although it may be in India’s interests to oppose Chinese interference in the selection of the next Dalai Lama, New Delhi’s options are severely limited. It is worth recalling that Mao’s China manufactured the territorial dispute that culminated in the 1962 war because of Beijing’s displeasure over the granting of asylum to the Dalai Lama by the Nehru government. Therefore, a complete alignment with Washington on the Tibetan issue is unlikely. For, as in the past, India – not the United States – will bear the brunt of China’s wrath. No successor anointed by Beijing would be regarded as legitimate. Therefore, Beijing’s game plan is to bring the entire Buddhist Himalayan belt within its security orbit.”
However, he also adds that, “A lengthy and divisive succession to the Dalai Lama succession battle would not only sharpen internal political divisions, but would also inevitably drag India into the quagmire, perhaps bringing it into a confrontation with China. Beijing understands that as in the past so in the future; once unrest erupts in Tibet, India cannot completely wash its hands of Tibetan affairs. To this end, China has been preparing for an all-out conflict with India for more than two decades. Not only that, Beijing has also built several ‘pressure points’ both within and without all along India’s periphery to ensure that India does not create problems for China in Tibet in the post-Dalai Lama era. The irony is that China and India could stumble into another war in the future for the same reasons that led them to a border war half a century ago in 1962.”
The bill also calls on China to allow the US to establish a consulate in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, before it can open any more consulates in the US. Built on the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002, the Tibetan Policy and Support Act (TPSA) addresses human rights violations, religious freedoms, democratic rights, and environmental & water security issues as a result of mega hydel projects.
I spoke to Namgyal Dolkar Lhagyari, a Member of Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile. She says, “On behalf of Tibetans in Tibet and diaspora, I extend my gratitude to both the houses of US for passing the Tibetan Policy and Support Act 2020 with an overwhelming majority which amplifies a strong US governmental support, beyond verbal solidarity with Tibetans facing human rights abuse under the Chinese communist regime. Its undisputed bipartisan support means that the Tibet issue remains an issue of concern for the lawmakers in the US. I hope more democratic nations around the world would follow suit in holding China accountable.”
Former Indian diplomat Rajiv Dogra says this is a new direction for US foreign policy. “The US has spoken as a country and every democratic setup would welcome this move.”
Dogra adds, “There is a God-like respect for the Dalai Lama in Tibet and the process shouldn’t be interfered with. Fear about interference in the succession of the Dalai Lama consumed many parts of the world. Now it has been addressed and got support from one corner of the world with the bill.”
He also feels that “Trump is unpredictable and makes a lot of U-turns. However, he has been consistent with China and has acted where he feels American interests are being hurt, whether it is about the tech sector where there has been theft of intellectual property by China or the trade front. Over the last two years at the least, he has consistently sent out a message that China rather than terror is the key area that the US has to focus on.” But it won’t be easy to sanction China beyond a point, he points out. China being able to bypass US sanctions and buy oil from Iran, being probably the only country to do so barring Syria who got it for free and the already heavily sanctioned Venezuela, is an example of China having the capability to bypass US sanctions to a large degree.
There is an increased assertiveness from the US on China — whether it is about Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or now Tibet. What impact the bill has is yet to be seen, but Chinese interference in the succession of the Dalai Lama is clearly laid out as a red line. Rajiv Dogra also says, “China has become so big in every sense of the term that the US would need its allies as friends to act together to put in policies that make a difference.” This is exactly where Trump was lacking, having largely alienated NATO allies, and Biden is expected to make a course correction there.
Militarily speaking India, however, can’t and shouldn’t react to it. If India takes any stand on core Chinese interests whether in Tibet or the South China Sea, it would better be prepared to bear the brunt of Chinese retaliation. Additionally, as a single party state and an autocracy, China doesn’t understand nuances that are for domestic consumption. Even if it does, it can feign ignorance to our detriment. For example, Bangladesh was rightfully outraged by Amit Shah calling Bangladeshis ‘termites’ but also understood it was for domestic consumption (because it too is a multi-party democracy). However, China didn’t understand that Amit Shah’s comments on retaking Aksai Chin were also for domestic consumption.
India, as a democracy, faces a dilemma — it cannot stay quiet over the suppression of democratic and human rights in its immediate region. But at the same time, any excessive posturing by India might invite Chinese aggression. We should, nevertheless, not brush things under the carpet. Every oversight by us is likely to be interpreted as ceding rights by us to them. Sadly, this is how China interprets things, words and actions. Again, when we protest we should do it behind the scenes at a diplomatic level. Public posturing might be misconstrued by them. Diplomatic aggression keeps the ball rolling and minimises scope for violence. We can use this strategy while we settle for watching the battle between the two behemoths from the sidelines. And the leverage remains with the one who acts first — whether bilaterally or multilaterally.
The author is an independent journalist working on cybersecurity and the geopolitics of India’s neighborhood, focusing on Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Bangladesh. Follow him on Twitter:@aveeksen. Views are personal.
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