The Reciprocal Access Tibet Act: A Litmus Test for The Middle Way Approach

January 17, 2019 By Prof. Nawang Phuntsog, Education department at California State University Fullerton

Conceptualized as a strategy for resolving Sino-Tibetan conflict, the Middle Way Approach (MWA) has been in place since 1979 and shares a critical relationship with the Reciprocal Access Tibet Act (RATA) enacted into law in the US on December 19, 2018. Central to both is the condition of reciprocity which, according to George (1972), is based on “mutual accommodation and mutual benefit.” Zoeller’s (1984) observation of reciprocity as “a condition theoretically attached to every legal form of international law” reflects its pervasiveness and widespread importance in all international political, economic, cultural, and educational relations between countries.

From a temporal sense, Keohane (1986) notes that reciprocity has been an important construct in international politics for at least 150 years. At a bygone time when the relationship between the US and Russia was warming up, the Basic Principles Agreement signed between President Richard Nixon and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev in May 1972 was based on a spirit of reciprocity, mutual accommodation, and mutual benefit (George, 1972). The concept of mutual accommodation and benefit is, thus, the essence of reciprocity. In general, the literature on reciprocity in international relations emphatically correlates reciprocity with the equivalence of benefits.

The tail end of 2018 brought exhilaration and jubilation for Tibetans all over the world. It was just six days before Christmas Day when President Donald Trump signed into law on December 19 what has now come to be called “The Reciprocal Access Tibet Act.” Like a great Christmas gift, Tibetans all over the world rejoiced with the news. The smell of the pen ink with which the President signed the law seems to linger on even to this day. Thus, it was this good news that ushered Tibetans into the New Year, perhaps also signaling a need to revisit of the MWA afresh.

As expected, it was, however, maligned in Chinese News reporting while The New York Times headlined “Trump Signs Law Punishing Chinese Officials Who Restrict Access to Tibet” the following day. In a rather quick succession of events, the same paper reported on January 10, 2019, that “China Pledges Easier Foreign Tourist Access to Tibet Amid U.S. Pressure.” The speed with which China reciprocated to US pressures to ease travel restrictions to Tibet clearly affirms that the rambunctious dragon can be tamed. Herein lies a lesson for other countries that enter into trade and economic partnerships with China.

Sponsoring the legislation in the House and the Senate, Representative Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) respectively stated in a written statement that “For too long, China has covered up their human rights violations in Tibet by restricting travel.” The introduction of legislation in the House on April 4, 2017, and its subsequent journey through the labyrinth of Congress and the Senate until it became Public Law No: 115-330 on December 19, 2018, can be accessed easily on the website. It is noteworthy to read through the text of H.R. 1872 – 115th Congress (2017-2018) wherein six sections describe the rationale, conditions, and the intent of the law in unequivocal terms.

MWA has been touted as a win-win strategy for resolving the Sino-Tibetan issue and is credited with having led to the first resumption of dialogue with the Chinese counterpart on September 2002 in Beijing. Although there have been nine rounds of dialogue to date, no significant progress has been made. Worse still, the fate of the dialogue itself has remained in limbo since 2011.

At the core of the Middle Way Approach is the principle of reciprocity. The stakes in this relationship are unprecedented from a historical, political, and cultural perspective unlike anything that has ever been attempted in the annals of Tibet. Should this reciprocity becomes a reality, what China gains far exceeds what Tibetans may gain. But then one is baffled as to why China has not reciprocated and continues to ignore the Tibetan olive branch extended with all sincerity.

MWA does not specify a timeline nor is it associated with consequences that are likely to result if the deadline is missed. A general perception is that the ball is in the Chinese court with the submission of a note to the Memorandum of Understanding in 2010 during the 9th round of talks between the Tibetan delegates and the Chinese counterpart. The note addressed specious clarifications sought by the Chinese regarding certain aspects of the Memorandum.

The Memorandum, presented to the Chinese Government in 2008, was clear and precise in its stipulation within the context of China’s Law on Regional National Autonomy (LRNA) enshrined in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Constitution. The memorandum makes an explicit case for the genuine autonomy of Tibetans based on the legal protections of minority concerns in the areas of language, education, political representation, and the use of local natural resources.

MWA is a measured and calculated strategy for solving the Tibet issue. Crafted with logical precision and legal clarity, the Tibetan Memorandum of Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People (2008) is the blueprint for the implementation of MWA within the PRC Constitutional framework. It is in the PRC’s interest to take all the necessary steps to resolve the Tibet issue as this is, perhaps, the most viable avenue for resolving differences and promoting unity, stability, and harmony among nationalities.

The self-immolations that have taken place in Tibet since 2009 are an unthinkable, heartbreaking, and unfathomable human tragedy that has received scant attention in the media nor in the corridors of different governments. The dialogue between envoys of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Chinese leadership remains stalled, but unfortunately, the suffering of Tibetans continues unabated. It is now time to rethink the MWA strategy. If this strategy is not producing its intended outcomes, then a re-examination and redirection are absolute necessities to enhance its potency and relevancy.

Central Tibetan Administration
George, A.L(1972), “The Basic Principles Agreement of 1972: Origins and Expectations,” in George, ed., Managing U.S.-Soviet Rivalry: Problems of Crisis Prevention (Boulder: Westview, 1983), p. 108. 5. Alexander

Keohane, R. (1986). Reciprocity in International Relations. International Organization, 40 (1), 1-27. Retrieved from

Zoller, E. (1984), Peacetime Unilateral Remedies, Dobbs Ferry: NY: Transnational.



Prof. Nawang Phuntsog, Professor in the Education department at California State University Fullerton, Fullerton, CA. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.

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