The Dalai Lama’s succession may be stirring the pot of Buddhism at the global geopolitical table. China’s sensitivity to Tibetan issues has long been viewed by some nations as having a high potential for leverage in the conduct of relations with it. But Donald Trump shook up the Tibetan pot in December 2020 when he signed into law the Tibetan Policy and Support Act 2020 or TPSA and changed the contours of the earlier US policy, which under the Barack Obama administration had sacrificed the region’s interests in order to foster better US-China relations.
The TPSA declares that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhist leaders are religious matters and all decisions pertaining to reincarnations rest solely with the Tibetan Buddhist faith community based on the instructions of the 14th Dalai Lama and without interference by the government of the People’s Republic of China. The law also acknowledges the Central Tibetan Administration (the Government in Exile in Dharamshala) that is committed to peacefully negotiating its status as an autonomous entity within China. Last month, the Biden administration opted to continue the Trump policy.
China’s project Tibet
China has perceived the Tibetan religion and culture as the main threat to its ability to assimilate Tibet into its larger nation-building project under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). China captured the succession process and according to a recent white paper by the State Council Information Office, Beijing “formulated a series of policies, measures and regulatory documents, which include Measures of the Tibet Autonomous Region on Implementing the Regulations on Religious Affairs (trial), Measures of the Tibet Autonomous Region on the Management of Major Religious Activities, and Detailed Rules of the Tibet Autonomous Region for the Implementation of the Measures on the Management of Living Buddha Reincarnation of Tibetan Buddhism”. China’s position on the matter was reiterated in a Global Times article. The arguments offered suffer from the logical and historical infirmities that suggest the central government of China was always in control of Tibet and the requirement of the latter’s approval for succession has been practised for centuries. The Dalai Lama has strongly refuted such arguments and described China’s version of his own succession as lies.
China’s history is pockmarked by attempts to dissolve the cultural identities of non-Han populations into the melting pot of its broader Han ethnicity. Turning around minds and fostering loyalty of the non-Han communities that have been forcibly incorporated in the State established by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949 have been an important part of its nation-building project.
The non-Han people of China’s western and southern peripheral areas—Xinjiang and Tibet—have been in the cross-hairs of the Chinese State and have been subjected to prolonged political and cultural re-education. The project has gained momentum in the twenty-first century due to the substantial increase in China’s economic and military capacity. The long-term success of the endeavour hinges on the ability of the State to create the idea of minority helplessness that is based on their firm conviction that there are no other better options available. For the CCP, splitting Tibetan unity has therefore become necessary. Most people, they believe, would tolerate subjugation by outsiders as long as they are compensated by material benefits.
The friction in US-China relations and the new American policy shift may rekindle the spirit of hope in the Tibetan diaspora. The recent tweet by the State Department spokesperson congratulating Penpa Tsering, president-elect of the Tibetan Government in Exile, is indicative: “We look forward to working with him to support the global Tibetan diaspora.” The expectations in terms of the support will, however, have to remain as lip service for now, aimed to embarrass China. But the CCP is tough-skinned and not overly concerned anymore about its image. Raw power is its current currency of choice.
China will try its best to impose an information filter between the Tibetan population in China and the outside world. China is already advantageously positioned to do so. All that the Tibetan diaspora can hope to achieve is to garner and sustain enough support for their cause till China’s internal and external challenges upend the power of the CCP. If and when it happens, it can hope to be in a position to influence the restoration of some feasible form of governance that protects Tibet’s political and cultural identity.
Eye on the Dalai Lama
Although we wish a long life, considering the 14th Dalai Lama’s advanced age, it is only a matter of time before China will have to deal with the reactions of Tibetans when it imposes a successor. It is an action China has committed to undertake. China could use it as an opportunity to split the Tibetans as there is a possibility of two Dalai Lamas claiming legitimacy. The move could also distance some Tibetans from the Han Chinese and dilute the gains bestowed by China’s enablement of their material prosperity. The generation of Tibetans that has imbibed the lure of material well-being and forsaken their gods may opt to retain support for the CCP-appointed religious head. For the young, when the alternatives are bleak, accommodation with material gain is easier. China is good at seducing people with promises, which are essentially means of later deception. Not surprisingly, China is already showering lot of goodies on the Tibetans for the time being.
China’s success in turning the minds of Tibetans towards loyalty to the CCP will be tested after succession. Inside Tibet, one could expect ruthless suppression of dissent. China will weaponise succession by creating religious rifts while using polarisation to suppress the dissidents. The Tibetan diaspora, in turn, could get energised and thus armed with a cause. But the polarisation of Tibetans within China could render the CCP’s efforts ineffective. Essentially, China will set the cat among the pigeons and leave it to the Tibetans to finish their job.
India and its silence
The current policy question for India is how should it fashion its posture before the succession takes place. Tibetan Buddhism is not merely a matter for Tibet. It is a variant that traces its origin from Mahayana Buddhism in India. India’s monasteries, particularly in Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, are linked to Tibetan Buddhism. Yet, for long, despite China’s assertions that the 14th Dalai Lama’s successor will have to be approved by Beijing, India preferred to maintain silence or at best be evasive with its stand. The logic has possibly been that if India cannot influence China’s action to appoint a Dalai Lama successor, then there is little to gain from taking a stance before the appointment. Does this logic any longer hold water?
India’s continued silence on the succession issue ignores its value system regarding protecting religious beliefs. The numbers may be relatively small, but Buddhism is essentially also a religion whose adherents include Indian nationals. Buddhism is also practised in other countries like Bhutan, Nepal, Mongolia, Russia, United States, East Asia and South East Asia. The practice of Buddhism anywhere has the same source of religious beliefs. China’s approach to politically appropriate and impose a Dalai Lama must therefore be condemned by India for it is an issue that has universal connotations and not only limited to the Tibetans. It is akin to an outside entity unilaterally imposing the Pope on the Roman Catholics without involving the Vatican. China will weaponise succession and let the Tibetans destroy Buddhism. It should, therefore, be apparent to India’s security planners that the 14th Dalai Lama’s longevity leaves China with less time to achieve its ambitions because of its demographic profile. The 14th Dalai Lama may be at grave risk and India should leave no stone unturned to protect him.
China is out to devastate Buddhism, starting from Tibet, and India is silent. That is a failure of its constitutional duty to protect the faith of a segment of Indians. Failure may be attributed to the inability to see the big picture. This is not a choice that can be papered over by arguments of realpolitik unless our leadership believes that our silence and signals of appeasement will buy us respite from China, which is not even bothering to conceal its intentions to do us harm whenever it desires. Illusions died in the Himalayas last year, but we appear to be still hallucinating. It is never too late to wake up unless India wants to play dead for unknown and unlikely benefits.
Lt Gen Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, and former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)