Tibet is back on the table

In its talks with China between 2002 and 2010, the Tibetan side only sought genuine autonomy in line with the middle path approached proposed by the Dalai Lama.
Tibet is back on the table

KOCHI : The Tibet issue was back in the headlines after the US Congress passed a bill that supports the Tibetan cause. The legislation, which calls for Beijing’s re-engagement with Tibet’s spiritual leader Dalai Lama to address the concerns of Tibetans, also authorises use of funds to counter China’s ‘disinformation campaign’ on issues related to Tibet such as the region’s history, demography, culture and customs, and high institutions including that of the Dalai Lama. The bipartisan bill, passed by the Congress early this month, is now on US President Joe Biden’s table awaiting his signature to ratify it into law.

What’s in the bill

The Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Dispute Act, also known as the Resolve Tibet Act, is the third such piece of legislation on Tibet passed by the US Congress after the Tibetan Policy Act (TPA) of 2002, and the Tibetan Policy & Support Act (TPSA) of 2020. It unambiguously questions China’s territorial claims over Tibet and seeks to redress the region’s unresolved status. It notes that talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama have been stalled since 2010 after the Chinese side imposed unreasonable conditions.

In its talks with China between 2002 and 2010, the Tibetan side only sought genuine autonomy in line with the middle path approached proposed by the Dalai Lama. However, the talks never reached their logical conclusion as China was not ready to give up its tight grip over the annexed region.

What sets the latest US legislation apart is that it underlines Tibetans’ right to ‘self determination’ and identifies the large swathes of geographical areas that were historically part of Tibet but were cut into pieces and merged with neighbouring Chinese provinces such as Sichuan and Yunnan after China’s military invasion of the plateau in 1950. New Chinese provinces such as Qinghai were also created with the bulk of Tibet’s land. Recognising the historical geography of Tibet is the most notable feature of the new bill as it precisely identifies the Chinese designs to disfigure the historical Tibet and seeks to highlight that by referring to the original geography of the region.

US paradigm shift

The US has for decades turned a blind on the Tibet issue so as not to offend China. The TPA of 2002, for example, termed Tibet a part of China. “The United States recognizes the Tibet Autonomous Region --hereinafter referred to as "Tibet" -- to be part of the People's Republic of China. This long-standing policy is consistent with the view of the international community… Because we do not recognize Tibet as an independent state, the United States does not conduct official diplomatic relations with the Tibetan ‘government-in-exile’ in Dharamsala,” the Act said. The ruse for this line was that the Dalai Lama wanted greater autonomy for Tibetans and not independence for Tibet. The bill didn’t go beyond requesting China to have talks with the Tibetan side and listen to their concerns.

But with the dramatic shift in geopolitical dynamics, Washington woke up to the potential of the Tibet issue to keep an aggressive China on the defensive. The TPSA of 2020 authorised funds for NGOs working to help the Tibetan communities. More importantly, it sought a US consulate in Tibetan capital Lhasa. “The Department of State may not authorize any new Chinese consulates in the United States until a U.S. consulate has been established in Lhasa, Tibet,” it said.

The bill also underscored Tibetans’ right to select and venerate their own religious leaders. This was in response to China’s diktat that the next Dalai Lama can’t be chosen without its permission. With this, the TPSA opened the doors for the US to issue economic and visa sanctions against any Chinese officials who interfere with the succession of the Dalai Lama.

The 2024 bill is much stronger in terms of what it seeks to achieve. It calls for establishing a statutory definition of Tibet and clearly states that it will include areas in Chinese provinces outside the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) – a limited area which China established in 1965 to be treated as Tibet. “This bill defines Tibet to include the TAR and the Tibetan areas of the Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan provinces,” it says. The bill also states that it is US policy that the conflict between Tibet and China is unresolved and that Tibet's legal status remains to be determined in accordance with international law.

To drive home the point, a bipartisan US Congressional delegation visited Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama at Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh last week and pledged support to the Tibetan cause. This is a huge departure from the 2002 legislation that said the US won’t interact with the Tibetan government-in-exile.

During the visit, the US team, headed by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul and including former US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Paul, said China’s claims over Tibet are untenable. To the chagrin of Beijing, both McCaul and Pelosi stated that Biden would soon sign the Resolve Tibet Act.

China’s hard stand

China claims Tibet has been its part since ancient times, a proposition that doesn’t have many takers. It invaded the plateau in 1950 with military power and formalised the annexation through an agreement signed between Lhasa and Beijing on May 23, 1951 under duress. According to L L Mehrotra, former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, the Dalai Lama himself came to know of it four days after it was ‘signed’ when Radio Peking broadcast it on May 27, 1951. They did not even know its contents until then. “With PLA guns pointed at the Tibetans in Lhasa, an agreement was imposed on them on May 23, 1951—the infamous 17 Point Agreement under which the Tibetans were made to accept Tibet as a region of China and not only Chinese suzerainty over it but absolute control,” Mehrotra says in his book ‘India’s Tibet Policy – An appraisal and options’.

China’s stand on Tibet has only hardened over time. Earlier this year, Beijing said it could hold talks with the representatives of the Dalai Lama but not of the ‘illegitimate’ Tibetan government-in-exile based in India. However, the offer for talks was a non-starter because China outright ruled out any dialogue on the Dalai Lama’s main demand -- autonomy for Tibet.

Beijing treats the Dalai Lama as a separatist, though the spiritual leader has clarified that his objective is not to seek political independence but autonomy and freedom in religious affairs that lie at the core of Tibet’s identity.

Last week’s US delegation visit to Dharamsala and the new legislation on Tibet evoked angry reaction from Beijing, which is nervous about rising international attention. Warning Biden against signing the latest piece of legislation, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lin Jian said it would provoke counter measures.

India’s nuanced position

For India, Tibet is a sensitive issue as it has to balance its delicate relationship with China with which it has long-pending border disputes. India welcomed the Dalai Lama and a sizable Tibetan refugee population with open arms in 1959 when they fled their homeland after a failed uprising against China. While India has historically supported the Tibetan cause, New Delhi’s official position since Jawaharlal Nehru’s time has been to accept Tibet as part of China.

India first accepted Tibet as a Chinese region in April 1954 when then PM Nehru signed the Panchsheel agreement with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. The stand was further confirmed in December 1988 when then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi visited China and “reiterated that Tibet is an autonomous region of China”. He also gave an undertaking to the Chinese that Tibetan refugees in India would not be allowed to “engage in political activities against China”.

The Chinese got India to reinforce the two points again in June 2003 during the then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Beijing trip. In what was seen as an oversight by the Indian side, Vajpayee’s joint statement with the then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao used the legal term ‘recognize’ to describe India’s position on Tibet.

“The Indian side recognizes that the Tibet Autonomous Region is part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China and reiterates that it does not allow Tibetans to engage in anti-China political activities in India,” the joint statement read. China used this statement to claim Tibet is a done deal.

While India hasn’t sought to reverse its policy, New Delhi seems to have relaxed the curbs on the freedom of expression of Tibetans in India. When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India in September 2014 to meet PM Narendra Modi, the Indian government allowed Tibetan exiles to stage protests on New Delhi's streets. Some activists even managed to make it to the vicinity of the summit site, sending alarm bells in Beijing.

A settlement in favour of the people of Tibet could work in India’s favour as it will negate China’s outlandish claims on Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing refers to as South Tibet. It may also address China’s disregard for the McMahon Line, the boundary between Tibet and India settled as part of the Simla Accord of 1914 signed by British India, Tibet and China, to some extent.

There are concerns if India openly supports the ‘Free Tibet’ movement, China can raise the Kashmir issue. In that sense, the American move on Tibet puts India in an unenviable position.

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