Tibet remains a challenge for both U.S. and China because it is one of the most difficult issues in U.S.-China relations. The question is why is it so? In order to answer this query, it is important to make a sense of the historical trajectory of America’s relation with Tibet and its involvement in Tibet issue vis-a-vis China. Why does Tibet matter and how does it affect U.S.-China relations? These questions are relevant because Tibet issue is still a continuing debate among the U.S. policymakers indicating that American interest in Tibet issue has not died out as many would like to believe. Although it is true that America’s involvement in Tibet issue has reduced considerably in real politik sense, it is no doubt that the current political status of Tibet, the role of the Dalai Lama, the functions of the Tibet government in exile and the continuing activities in raising Tibet’s profile internationally has prompted various U.S. lawmakers, congressmen and senators to extend their support for Tibet denouncing China’s policies in Tibet.
It should be noted that there is a difference between American interest and American involvement in the Tibet question. The fascination over Tibet spurred by Hollywood movies such as the Seven Years in Tibet starring Brad Pitt and Martin Scorsece directed Kundun which is based on the Dalai Lama’s own journey has left a strong impression on the Americans. The growing popularity and interest in Tibetan culture and religion further accentuated by famous Hollywood actors like Richard Gere’s involvement has further internationalised the Tibet issue. The official U.S. involvement in the Tibet question has gone through different stages from maintaining a clandestine relations with Tibetan resistance group in the early 1960s to restrictions imposed on the Dalai Lama from visiting the U.S. after his exile, to publicly acknowledging the Tibet’s cause. According to Dawa Norbu, Tibet was an instrumental means for the U.S. to regulate its relations with China during the Cold War period. The strategic value that he further noticed in the issue has rendered effective, several utilities for America’s overall Asia strategy, although at the end, U.S. Tibet policy remained secondary to larger concerns in the region.
In the beginning, the U.S. had no coherent policy towards Tibet and provided no humanitarian or developmental assistance to the Tibetan people like it does now. In fact, Guangqiu Xu in his article, the United States and the Tibet Issue, adds that U.S. was largely not interested in Tibetan affairs until the Second World War, following which President Franklin Roosevelt send a letter and gifts to the present Dalai Lama with a purpose to build a supply route, thereby, establishing the first official U.S. contact with Tibet. Thenceforth, the U.S. stand on Tibet issue has undergone radical changes during the period of Reagan and Clinton administrations, while at the same time, the Tibet issue began to command the attention of both Congress and the White House. Today, from American Presidents to Cabinet members and Members of Congress, all have continuously encouraged the Chinese government to engage in a dialogue with the Dalai Lama’s representatives. Indeed, President Bush became the first U.S. president to officially receive the Dalai Lama in Washington on April 1991 and his son, President G W Bush 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. Consequently and gradually, the Tibet issue started gaining prominence in the U.S. agenda, reinforcing American support through passing a historic comprehensive Tibet legislation- the Tibetan Policy Act (TPA) in 2002. 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. China, on the other hand remains unchanged, and continues to condemn the U.S. for allegedly interfering in the internal affairs of China. In fact, the Global Times stated that such U.S. meddling in the domestic affairs will impede dialogue and mutual trust between the two countries, affecting their pragmatic cooperation and increasing the possibility of an all-out confrontation.
Internationalisation of Tibet issue: Changes and Directions
Despite Tibet being a source of friction in the U.S.-China relationship, the Congress continues to show great interest in the issue, passing laws and resolutions related to Tibet and continue to pressure successive U.S. presidents on the affair. The international ascendance of the Dalai Lama, especially after the conferment of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, coupled with rising support from the Congress leading to internationalisation of Tibet issue, has been unprecedented and prevalent. However, with the inevitable global attention over Tibet, the metamorphosis from a strong political and sovereignty based issue to an exclusive cultural and religious affair was not envisaged for future Tibetan struggle by Tibetans. It is prejudiced to define and treat Tibet exclusively based on the prerogative of the global setting, one that is western – centric in nature, and more importantly, one that fails to address the entirety of Tibet issue without taking into all of its historical, political and social complexities.
With the internationalisation of the issue, the question that often arises is, has Tibet’s political interest been constrained by its receding priority on the global stage and overshadowed by agendas set by the U.S. which do not necessarily resonate with the former. Considering how the issue is played out globally and internally, the implicit position of the Tibetan exile polity and stand on Tibetan struggle seems to be drawn according to how others (U.S. in particular) treat Tibet issue rather than acknowledging it as an independent entity. The problem lies in the fact that the internationalisation of Tibet issue was never meant to progress in a way that it became dependent on other’s national interest, but rather remarkably began with the view that with the help of foreign governments’ support and aid, Tibetans would raise the Tibet issue independently. The idea was to capitalise on the gains from internationalisation of the issue, not to develop on it and turn it into a subordinate one. However, this was not meant to emphasise or deemphasise the independence of Tibet as the struggle was based on the belief that it is seeking truth, and seeking to be treated with respect including its history, culture and identity.
However, the internationalisation of the Tibet issue consequently reduced it from a political issue (a statehood issue) to a mere human rights issue (social and cultural issue). Secondly, while the Tibet issue was discussed globally, it is also a fact that the issue has been victimised and sympathised rather than being recognize as the struggle of the Tibetans against Chinese atrocities, one which needs great amount of courage and sacrifice. The victimisation of the Tibetan struggle for nationhood is not only disempowering, it most often dissuade Tibetans from more active involvement in the struggle for freedom. And finally, while Tibetans welcome the world community’s reciprocity and their concerns over Tibet issue, it is simultaneously true that with the internationalisation of the issue, it has become a dependent entity from an independent entity, defining the issue as one that solely relies on international support, making it vulnerable and facile. Despite the victimisation and the challenges, it is true at the same time that because Tibet issue could gain international concern and support, especially in the U.S. and in Europe, it tremendously helped the Tibetan struggle in many ways considering the Chinese intransigence on the issue of Tibet.
U.S. – Tibet – China : Recent developments
Since the beginning of the 21st century, a prominent development in the United States’ policy towards Tibet was seen in the form of enactment of a series of policies aimed to strengthen the U.S. stand on Tibet issue vis-a-vis China. The Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 (TPA), for instance is a core legislative measure guiding U.S. policy toward Tibet and the Tibetan people. Its stated purpose is to support the aspirations of the Tibetan people to safeguard their distinct identity. The changes in the U.S. approach to China, seen in the reciprocity in trade deals and especially in the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act that was signed by President Donald Trump into law in December 2018, was a strong response against China’s growing insensitivity and decades-long injustice. This was followed by yet another bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on January 28, the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2019. Zhang Tengjun of the Global Times alleged that these legislative measures have significantly questioned China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Notably, the U.S. concern over religious freedom in Tibet is by far a critical matter and a particular concern for Washington. Evidently, the above bill is significantly built on the issue of the Dalai Lama’s succession, calling Beijing to respect the Dalai Lama and his follower’s decision to select their own choice of successor. The bill goes as far as imposing sanctions and a visa ban on any Chinese officials who interferes in the selection of a successor to the Dalai Lama. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Commissioner Gary Bauer highlights that this bill not only sends strong signal that the US support the role of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders in their selection of the next Dalai Lama but it will also consider any interference from the Chinese government as a violation of religious freedom. The USCIRF also documents China’s abuses against Christians, Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners and others in its 2019 Annual Report calling the State Department to designate China as a country of ‘particular concern’ for its systematic violations of religious freedom since 1999. The Secretary of State Mike Pompeo singled out China, together with Iran, as the worst place in the world for those belonging to a minority religion, treating religious minorities as national security threats that require surveillance, imprisonment and sometimes death. Moreover, in the latest published report by Freedom House, which rated 210 countries and territories, in which and perhaps not surprisingly, Tibet was placed second on the list of least free country in the world after Syria for the fifth consecutive year. The report by the Freedom House revealed intensified pressure on civil liberties over the past few years, when censorship and surveillance reached new extremes. On a more revealing note, the Human Rights Watch on March 5, published a report on China’s bilingual education policy in Tibet, highlighting that the policy has accelerated the demise of Tibetan-medium instruction in primary schools in Tibetan areas. The report not only reveal the threats faced by the Tibetan language under the guise of improving access to education, but it also exposed the underneath state propaganda unleashed in the name of “strengthening the unity of nationalities.” Sophie Richardson, who heads the China section, concludes that China’s bilingual education policy is motivated by political imperatives rather than educational ones. She accuses the Chinese government for violating its international legal obligations to provide Tibetan-language instruction to Tibetans. The Tibetan language activist Tashi Wangchuk was also arrested in 2016 and charged with inciting separatism. Despite clear cases of human rights violation and growing religious persecution, the demolition of monasteries in Tibet still continues, while the rising number of self-immolations against the repressive policies endures. Although it is globally accepted that Tibet is part of China, the internationalisation of Tibetan cause, the far-reaching campaigns and the continuing advocacy of Tibet issue has sustained the struggle for a free Tibet, free from Chinese discrimination, subjugation and oppression.
Tibetan activism and advocacy in the West
As Stephen Noaks rightfully noted, advocacy primarily rely on persuasion and issue-framing to socialise outsider states to the rules envisaged in their systems of belief which occasionally involves naming and shaming politicians or governments concerned for their reputations into changing their behavior. The Tibetan communities and NGOs in the U.S. and in Europe are actively involved in advocacy, lobbying and campaigning for Tibet. One of the most notable NGO, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) has offices both in the U.S. and in Europe that advocates for Tibet’s cause. ICT works with parliamentary bodies worldwide to generate support for Tibet and push for resolutions on the situation in Tibet. Other significant Tibet support groups, such as the well-known Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) that work for addressing Tibetans right to political freedom has more than 100 chapters with its headquarter in New York. There are number of Tibet Support Groups (TSG) in the U.S. where substantial number of Tibetans live. Julia Meredith Hess notes that the development of nationalist consciousness as well as diaspora consciousness may translate to activism, in case of internationalisation of Tibet issue, which has coincided with the development of Tibetan diaspora consciousness. Hess further points out that Tibetans in the West (U.S. and in Europe) are mostly seen adopting citizenship in these countries in order to become more effective transnational political actors and empower themselves by becoming a political agents for their own lost state. This was quite evident during the 2008 protest against the Beijing Olympic Games. Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann notice that TSGs are non-governmental organizations (NGOs) formed voluntarily and maintained by private individuals with the aim of rallying regional, national, or international awareness of and support for the Tibet issue. They discovered that the larger the pro-Tibetan network in the Western country, the more inclined the political leader might be to receive the Dalai Lama in order to satisfy the demands of these pressure groups. The advocacy for Tibet has not only increased the visibility of Tibet issue, but more importantly, it has added to the construction and assessment of global normative values. With a western – centric global structure and the subsequent simplification of the issue, Tibet is nevertheless a strong case of how norms and values play a fundamental role in China’s interaction with the U.S. The discrepancies in values and norms in the form of human rights and religious freedom, especially in the case of Tibet has played out significantly in U.S.-China relations. In such, Tibet issue has not only championed norms, but is the very embodiment of them if one defines the issue in terms of the present global setting. Hence, it can be positively concluded that as long as the normative differences between U.S. and China remains, and the Tibet issue continues to cultivate global interest, one can rightfully state that the future of U.S. policy toward the PRC is intrinsically bound to the American stand on and policy towards the Tibet Question.
*Tenzin Lhadon is a visiting fellow of Tibet Policy Institute. She is a Ph.D scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflects those of the Tibet Policy Institute.