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US Plays the Tibet Card

January 04, 2021 16:36 IST
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China is acutely conscious of the need for the next Dalai Lama to be under its control.
It was for this reason that China recently stressed their claim on Arunachal Pradesh.
There were rumours that the next Dalai Lama may be found in Tawang.
If that happens, India-China relations will become tense and there may be demands for the child to be handed over to the Chinese, points out Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

IMAGE: His Holiness The Dalai Lama greets his followers before delivering teachings at the Thupsung Dhargyeling monastery in Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh, April 6, 2017. Photograph: Anuwar Hazarika/Reuters

President-elect Joe Biden and other responsible citizens of the United States were on tenterhooks as President Donald J Trump delayed his signature on the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 till December 27, 2020.

Apart from the funds required for keeping the US government going at a point of crisis, it also contained the long delayed coronavirus relief fund.

Everyone heaved a sigh of relief that the US government did not have to close down, but the Act also approved the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020, which has the potential to jeopardise Mr Biden's plans to reset US relations with China soon after he takes over.

This is not the first time that the US approves funding for the Tibet government in exile and the refugees in India.

The funds allocated for Tibet are rather small: $1 million for scholarships; $6 million for Tibetan refugees in India; $3 million for Tibetan governance; $8 million for the Tibetan Autonomous Region, much of which will not be spent.

But unlike the last time in 2002, the new Act is substantially more comprehensive and assertive.

The Act also has specific new provisions, which will be seen as interference in China'S internal affairs.

For instance, it says, 'The Secretary of State shall make best efforts to establish a branch office in Lhasa, Tibet, of the United States Consulate General in Chengdu, People's Republic of China, to monitor political, economic, and cultural developments in Tibet.'

It adds, 'The Secretary may not authorize the establishment in the United States of any additional consulate of the People's Republic of China until a United States consulate in Lhasa, Tibet, is established.'

Further, the Act seeks to ensure that China does not manipulate the identification and succession of the next Dalai Lama.

It states that decisions regarding the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders are exclusively spiritual matters that should be made by the appropriate religious authorities within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and any 'interference by the Government of the People's Republic of China or any other government in the process of recognising a successor or reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama and any future Dalai Lamas would represent a clear abuse of the right to religious freedom of Tibetan people.'

Any Chinese official who directly interferes with the process will be penalised.

Against the backdrop of reports that major changes will be made in the ecology of Tibet, the Act states that the US would encourage a regional framework on water security among riparian countries.

This is particularly important to India as rivers from Tibet supply almost half of the water that flows from the Tibetan plateau runs directly into India.

The US Act is of utmost importance to India at a time when India-China relations have plummeted to the lowest level since the latest Chinese aggression, following the occupation of territory on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control, a region which China has been claiming since 1959.

The impasse, despite lengthy negotiations and agreements on disengagement has left India in a dilemma as the issue in question is India's occupation of the Kailash range, which is indisputably Indian territory.

India had deliberately refrained from playing the Tibet card, as India had acknowledged that Tibet was an autonomous region of China and did not want to alter the position and thus provoke China.

President Trump's motivation to play the Tibet Card in an aggressive way may well be to suit his own policy towards China, but he has also won India's approbation by questioning the annexation of Tibet by China.

The Dalai Lama himself was unhappy that India did not recognise him as a ruler of Tibet in exile, but subsequently accepted the reality that he was only an honoured guest in India as one of the most revered leaders of Buddhism.

In one of his conversation with me in Austria, he once told me that he had a "bone to pick" with Pandit Nehru on this matter.

However, the Dalai Lama, in his own way, has signalled that it is the peace and progress of Tibet that he desires and not his own return to power.

'Even though Tibet was an independent country, politically China occupies Tibet today. Under the given circumstances, I have been saying for some time now that there is a need to focus on preservation of Tibetan culture, religion and identity. It is no longer a struggle for political independence,' he told The Week in July 2019.

IMAGE: The Potala Palace, once the Dalai Lama's home, in Lhasa, Tibet. Photograph: Kind courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Dalai Lama has also cast doubts on the relevance of reincarnation of the Dalai Lama as a system of succession.

'I can only be concerned about this life; the next is not my concern. What is important are the teachings, the institution of Dalai Lama comes after that. The teachings of the Buddha are important. If reincarnation was so important, then why did the Buddha not have a reincarnation?...... Sometimes, I also feel the lama institution has some connection with the feudal system and isn't relevant today,' he said.

Perhaps, he anticipates problems in identifying his true successor and wants to play down its significance.

Moreover, the Tibetan system of succession has an inherent problem as the successor will be an infant, who has to grow in age and education before exercising his authority and influence.

China is acutely conscious of the need for the next Dalai Lama to be under its control.

It was for this reason that China recently stressed their claim on Arunachal Pradesh.

There were rumours that the next Dalai Lama may be found in Tawang.

If that happens, India-China relations will become tense and there may be demands for the child to be handed over to the Chinese.

The US indication that it will oppose any role for China in choosing the next Dalai Lama is, therefore, particularly helpful to India.

More than the funding aspect, the political value of the Tibet Act is enormous.

Lobsang Sangay, president of the Tibetan hovernment in exile characterised the US Act as a 'momentous landmark for the Tibetan people'.

Needless to say, China has opposed the Act as gross interference in its internal affairs.

It asserted that Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong are the internal affairs of China.

Being aware that the Act is a vestige of the Trump administration, China must expect President Biden to let sleeping dogs lie.

Though a new Tibet Coordinator was appointed by the Trump administration in October, no particular activity was initiated.

India has reason to be grateful to President Trump, but the Act will not trigger any new action by India.

But it must give India some vicarious pleasure in seeing the US playing the Tibet card against China.

Ambassador T P Sreenivasan (IFS 1967) is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA.
A frequent contributor to, you can read his fascinating columns here.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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