Time is running out for the Dalai Lama. The Central Tibetan Administration [CTA] too has been pleading of late for strengthening efforts to make the return of the Dalai Lama to Potala Palace in Lhasa a reality. There have been some recent speculations about the Dalai Lama soon returning to Tibet at least to visit the Wutai Shan Mountain in Shanxi, which is sacred to the Bodhisattva Manjushri—the symbolic centre of Tibetan, Mongolian and Manchu unity.
There is no direct visible indication of Beijing inviting the Dalai Lama to visit China anytime soon. Surely, there is a back-door channel open between the Dalai Lama and Beijing. But the Dalai Lama’s key backer, the United States, under President Trump did not appear inclined to embrace the Tibet issue as he refused to meet the Tibetan leader and instead proposed zero aid in 2018 to the Tibetans, reversing the decades-old American policy of appointing a special coordinator for Tibet, required under the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002. However, President Trump did sign in December 2018 into law the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018 which requires the State Department to punish Chinese officials who bar American officials, journalists and other citizens from going freely to Tibetan areas in China. The US ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, also insisted on a trip to Tibet in May 2019. He criticized Beijing for interfering in religious freedom and also insisted that China hold talks with the Dalai Lama.
Interestingly, President Trump never raised Tibet during his four summit meetings with President Xi Jinping. Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, who succeeded Tillerson as Secretary of State in 2018, have also barely raised the issue with their Chinese counterparts. Ironically, in July 2019, when the US State Department held its Second Annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the focus was more on the suppression of Uyghur rights in Xinjiang than on the Tibetans in Tibet.
Clearly, Tibet no longer seems to be a priority, and Trump’s rivalry with China on trade is not necessarily benefiting the Dalai Lama. Strangely, the United States, which was solely responsible for inducing the Dalai Lama to disavow the Tibetan agreement with China and planned for his flight into exile, has now reached the stage of effectively abandoning it.
At the age of eighty-four, Dalai Lama seems to have been caught in a tight spot. The Trump administration seems disinterested in the Tibetan issue. But it is also true that the Dalai Lama still has friends in the Congress willing to back him, which means the Dalai Lama has to wait for someone like Mike Pence to win the next election. He has expressed his wish to return home but the Chinese are not responding to his call. But surely he is shrewd enough to sustain his struggle. While sensing the changes on the global front, a week after Trump’s November 2017 China visit, the Dalai Lama abruptly selected two personal emissaries (for an indefinite period) to represent him in all global engagements. He has cited increasing physical fatigue, but the decision to appoint two emissaries was probably meant to send a calibrated signal to China.
In the past, Chinese leaders have stymied the Dalai Lama’s desire to return to Tibet. But there is a distinct possibility that it may bear fruit this time. Long back in 1933, the previous Dalai Lama feared that the Tibetan political system would soon disappear without a trace. No sooner did the Indian consul in Lhasa, Sumal Sinha, note that the Tibetan political elite were making fortunes by collaborating with the Chinese, and the Dalai Lama’s authority had ‘lost all its generals’.
As for India, the Tibet issue no longer seems to be a crucial sticking point in its relationship with China. India’s position has changed considerably under the Modi government. In recent years, New Delhi has been looking for other options to deal with China to safeguard its national interest. India has responded to China’s sensitivities with considerable savoir-faire—curtailing activities of the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile.
No wonder then, the ruling BJP’s general secretary, Ram Madhav, while speaking at the event to mark the sixtieth year of the Dalai Lama in exile, expressed the hope that the Dalai Lama ‘would be able to find a solution to the Tibetan issue through peaceful and democratic means that will facilitate an honourable return to his homeland’. That actually sounded like a farewell speech for the Dalai Lama. China is unlikely to seek any third-party mediation in Tibet; certainly not from the West, when its role is diminishing in the face of China’s rising influence. The UN is also not going to play a role.
However, in the changed context, the Russia–India–China (RIC) axis is emerging as an alternative dialogue mechanism for trust-building. New Delhi’s leveraging power with Beijing will go up if it is able to play the Xinjiang card positively—perhaps the time has arrived now to think in this direction. Quite clearly, China does require India’s support, even if the issue is to be resolved in its favour. The Wuhan process was probably just about that, and hopefully it will succeed! New Delhi will do better if it is able to channel its own resources and institutions like the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC) or the ABCP in this direction rather than misleading the Tibetans in the guise of containing China. The Chinese, on their part, need to undertake governance reforms in order to remove Tibetan anger and ease tensions over economic and cultural deprivation. The overwhelming impression I got during my last visit to Tibet in 2018 was that the Chinese have a high level of self-confidence on Tibet. Most Chinese do not carry reservations about India’s intentions vis-à-vis Tibet, but they do remain apprehensive of US policy aimed at dismembering China.
My visit has also given rise to the idea that India should consider the possibility of normalizing ties now that the ice with China is broken. China should allow India to resume its traditional trade and cultural ties with Tibet, including reopening an Indian consulate in Lhasa. Equally vital is to find ways to send high Tibetan lamas back to Tibet if the fruits of the investments made by India in them for such a long time are to be reaped fully. But one thing is clear: the Tibet lobby in the West has a track record of ensnaring India in its murky agenda, often at the cost of India’s national interests.
On his part, the Dalai Lama has lately been giving interview after interview, which indicates his growing anxiety. Recently, he said the Tibet issue is no longer the struggle for political independence. This was probably meant to please China and simultaneously and indirectly pressurize India. To build further pressure on China, he has threatened to decide his next birth and also hinted at taking a rebirth in India this time around. Beijing, of course, insists on following the old rule and would do anything to prevent the Dalai Lama deciding the future of his status, and this will be the most important game that could last for another century. But having played this game for too long, India seems to have failed to grasp the dynamic interplay between sectarian affiliation and power politics, between the Tibetan plateau and the political landscape that is the Indian Himalayas.
Surely, if not careful, India’s topsy-turvy Tibet policy is going to bounce back eventually with heavy implications for its defence in the Himalayas—traditionally India’s natural frontiers. We saw only a glimpse of it during the Doklam crisis.
Clearly, whatever the government is doing with the Tibetan issue, mindfully or otherwise, without telescopic big-picture thinking, would make many of these look meaningless—it will only end up destabilizing the Himalayas and complicating India–China relations further. In any case, the days of India playing any sort of great game in Tibet seem over. Clearly then, India has so far either had no independent Tibet policy of its own or been highly dependent on Western assessments, or New Delhi had weighed heavily in the Dalai Lama’s thinking.
Instead of relying on knowledge rooted in Indian experiences, especially on the statecraft carefully evolved during the British period, India’s policy objective for the Himalayas and Tibet is subservience to US policy goals. The time has come to change that.
This excerpt from The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas by Phunchok Stobdan has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.