The recent appointment of Robert Destro as the US Special coordinator for Tibet, who is also Assistant Secretary for Democracy and Human Rights was the consequence of continued oppression of Tibetans by the Chinese authorities. China’s intensified efforts to eradicate the Tibetan culture and religion through the changes in the demographic pattern and ruthlessly imposing its ideology, pressed the US to take this step. It is an expedient and timely step.
While China has been pursuing this policy towards Tibet since its illegal occupation of the plateau, the decisions taken at the seventh central symposium on Tibet works to destroy the Tibetan culture and religion and crush dissidence with a heavy hand acted as the catalyst for the USA’s changed policy. Xi had listed three steps for achieving the above objectives. First, the Sinicization of the Buddhist culture; second, imposition of CCP’s political and ideological education in Tibetan schools by turning them into re-education camps; third, strengthening of the border defence and frontier security of Tibet to ensure that there is no link of the Tibetans with outside world.
The US policy towards Tibet was evolving since 1991 when senior Bush as President officially received Dalai Lama in Washington. Gradually, the Tibet issue started gaining prominence in the U.S. agenda, reinforcing American support through passing a historic comprehensive Tibet Bush legislation- the Tibetan Policy Act (TPA) in 2002. Junior Bush as President honoured the Dalai Lama with the highest civilian honour-the Congressional Gold Medal in September 2006, thereby recognising the Dalai Lama as a man of peace and reconciliation. Over the years, the legislature has passed a number of bills and resolutions to address human rights violations inside Tibet and put pressure on Beijing to change its treatment of the Tibetan people.
With the internationalisation of the Tibet issue, the nature of the problem got changed from political and sovereignty to human rights and religious one. However, since the beginning of the 21st Century, the US approach towards Tibet began to shift towards the political dimension. The stated purpose of 2002 Act is to support the aspirations of the Tibetan people to safeguard their distinct identity. Two acts passed in 2018 and 2019 suggested increasing US concerns over the fate of Tibetans. In 2018, the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act that was signed by President Donald Trump was a strong response against China’s growing insensitivity and decades-long injustice towards the Tibetan cause. Soon after this another act- the Tibetan Policy and Support Act was passed on 28th January 2019. According to an article of the Global Times, these Acts significantly questioned the Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.
The appointment of a Special Coordinator for Tibet is yet another step in the direction of the recognition of political and sovereignty dimensions of Tibet. It goes to the credit of Tibetans that despite low level support of the International Community to their cause of Tibetan independence, the movement for a free Tibet, free from Chinese discrimination, subjugation and oppression sustained. The meeting of the Special Coordinator for Tibet with Lobsang Sangay, the head of the Tibetan government in exile is important, which drew adverse comments from China. On expected lines, China asked US to stop undermining the development and stability of China’s Tibet region noting that it was the first time that the head of the Tibetan Government-in-exile was invited inside the State Department.
Pompeo’s statement that the Special Coordinator for Tibet will focus on advancing the dialogue between the Communist-run government in Beijing and Dalai Lama, protecting the distinct religious, cultural and linguistic identity, improving respect for human rights and much, much more. The last words are suggestive of focussing on the Tibet’s political dimension.
In view of the evolving US approach towards the Tibet issue, the appointment of Special Coordinator is a significant step. First, this implies that in US perception its relations with China have been disturbed beyond any possibility of restoration of ties at the old level in the foreseeable future. Second, the old policy of taking into consideration the Chinese sensitivities is no more needed. This is means that US is moving in the direction of dumping ‘One China’ approach. Third, US would focus on the political dimension of Tibet that may significantly help the demand for free Tibet. Fourth, the USA’s relations with Taiwan would be further strengthened. While Taiwan has not been recognised as a separate nation by US, now this may be seriously considered. Fifth, the development in Hong Kong would be now be on sharper focus of the US. Sixth, the efforts for actualisation of the Free, Open and Inclusive Indo-Pacific would be significantly accelerated. Seventh, this could have spill over effect on the movements in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Hong Kong. There may be escalation of protests in these regions. Signs of these are already visible. Eighth, smaller nations in the South China Sea may now feel encouraged to boldly oppose the Chinese aggressiveness in view of the changed approach of US.
Whether this would be followed by other nations or not, only time will tell. However, there is no doubt that the situation in Tibet demands immediate attention of the International Community. The persecution of Tibetans is continuing and with the recent coercive measures, the position of Tibetans would become all the more miserable. India needs to take up the issue more forcefully by discarding its approach followed so far, which is dominated by appeasement dimension propelled by too much concern for the Chinese sensitivities. US has announced that it is discarding its approach based on appeasement. The discarding of appeasement policy does not mean use of armed forces. It should translate into taking a firm stance on India’s strategic interests, which have been ignored so far. Pragmatism demands use of effective non-military means aimed at changing the behaviour of China. It is expected that in 2 plus 2 dialogue with US, Tibet issue would be comprehensively discussed along with other key bilateral and regional issues.
Given India’s close links with the Tibetan culture, religion and people, India should also consider appointing a special coordinator for keeping in touch with the developing situations in Tibet and calibrate its approach. The political, moral and diplomatic support to the self-rule of Tibet may be extended in view of oppression that is unleashed on the Tibetans. If China can demand Arunachal Pradesh, treat J&K as its own matter and continue to provide assistance to Pakistan, which is exporting terrorism, there is no justification for India to keep quiet on an important issue in its immediate neighbourhood. India’s strategic interests demand a review of its approach towards China and Tibet issue. India can take a lesson from Lord Palmerston’s saying, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and these interests it is our duty to follow.”
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.