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Mainstream, VOL LV No 27 New Delhi June 24, 2017

Tibet Question: A Dragon-hold and a Stifling US Agenda

Saturday 24 June 2017

by Pradeep Nair and Sandeep Sharma

The United States’ ‘Tibetan Policy Act of 2002’, clearly states that ‘the US would support the aspirations of Tibetan people in order to safeguard their distinct identity’. Other provisions which follow speak about the possible monetary assistance to be provided in lieu of attaining the aforesaid objective. This Act, a major piece of Tibet Legislation, was enacted as law by President George W. Bush on September 30, 2002, as part of the US Foreign Relations Authorisations Act. Reversing its stand on the Tibet policy and giving a huge jolt to the Tibetan aspirations, the Trump Adminis-tration recently took a divergent step by proposing zero aid in 2018 to the Tibetans and justified the action by stating that “as we work to streamline efforts to ensure efficiency and effectiveness of the US taxpayers’ dollars, we acknowledge that we have to prioritise and make some tough choices”.

This whole episode indicates the changing internal politics of the US, especially after Trump’s election, and also the new geopolitics and emerging world order which is shadowed by the People’s Republic of China. (Piccone 2016) Besides analysing the US’ internal politics and emerging world order, this short note attempts to revisit and explore historical aspect of the US’ Tibet Agenda which ultimately has culminated in withdrawal of all financial aid to the Tibetan community.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the ‘Tibet Question’ remained an important factor in Sino-American relationship. The Tibet Agenda of the US was tactically inspired by a dual policy encompassing both a strategic and a pragmatic aspect. Strategically, the United States has consistently and explicitly supported the Chinese position that Tibet is a part of China. But at the pragmatic level, Washington has been opportunistic in its dealings with Tibet and has been prone to wide fluctuations, ranging from the provision of financial and military aid to the Tibetan guerrilla forces in the 1950s and 1960s; neglect and almost no official contact in the 1970s and 1980s (Goldstein 2006); the enactment of the ‘Tibetan Policy Act of 2002’ in the post-liberal era and most recently the proposal to withdraw all monetary assistance to the Tibetan community.

In 1942, the United States made its first contact with Tibet. The Roosevelt Adminis-tration, after several efforts, finally succeeded in seeking permission to enter Tibet with the help of the British envoy in Lhasa with the explicit desire to build roads and airfield in the region and to seek moral support against the Axis. (Goldstein 1989) During that period, China was under the rule of the nationalist party called Gounmintang and till that time it had exercised no authority in Tibet. Tibet was de facto an independent state and had control over not only its internal affairs but also its territorial defence and foreign relations. However, the US, in its policy statement about Tibet at that time, had very clearly acknowledged Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, a fact which the Lhasa Government was kept uninformed about by the US. The statement reads:

“For its part, the government of the United State has borne in mind the fact that the Chinese Government has long claimed suzerainty over Tibet and that Chinese constitution lists Tibet among areas constituting the territory of the Republic of China. This government has at no time raised question regarding either of these claims.” (UKNA 1942)

Another major turn of events came in 1948, when the Tibetan Government sent an official trade delegation to the United States. At first, the delegation was ostensibly denied a formal meeting with US officials for strategic reasons. However, after lots of guesses and estimations, the delegation was finally allowed to meet the Secretary of the State and that too only when the delegation was accompanied by the Chinese ambassador. The very next year the US Embassy in New Delhi advised the State Department to do a review of the US policy toward Tibet. The embassy suggested that, in case the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took over Beijing, the United States should be prepared to treat Tibet as an independent country. The embassy had underlined the usefulness of keeping Tibet friendly to the United States and other Western countries. In 1949, the CCP successfully captured power and an apprehensive Lhasa Government sought the US for help. The request was immediately turned down. This fluctuating attitude of the US toward Tibet pushed Lhasa to sign a ‘Seventeen-Point Agreement’ with Beijing. This was the first document which formally recognised Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.

In 1951, the US again communicated a series of messages to the Tibetan leaders with a covert desire to gain support in favour of an anti-Chinese Communist propaganda. The messages asked the Dalai Lama to leave Tibet and disavow the ‘seventeen point agreement’. In return, the US agreed to take a stand against communist aggression and also assured that ‘it would officially adopt the position that the Dalai Lama is the Head of an autonomous Tibet and would support his return to Tibet at the earliest practicable moment as the head of an autonomous and non-communist country’. But from the lessons learnt in the past, the Tibetan political and religious leader— the Dalai Lama—was not very much convinced by the US’ assurance and decided to stay in Lhasa for some more years. In 1956, a series of revolts broke out in the Kham area of western China inhabited by ethnic Tibetans and the US got an opportunity to get involved in the situation. The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) started helping the rebels by providing training and weapons. As the situation further worsened, Lhasa became the epicentre of rebel activities. This led to the exile of the Dalai Lama to get political asylum in India. In 1959, the US had achieved what it had unsuccessfully tried in 1950-51.

In the coming years, the US consistently restricted the exile government’s move of raising the Tibet issue on international platforms and pressurised it to make Tibet’s case a matter of human rights violations rather than a matter of ‘independence’ and ‘sovereignty’. It was due to this pressure that the Tibetan leader had to change tone on the Tibet issue and settle for the demand of an autonomous status under the Chinese regime. The Strasbourg proposal of 1984—under which the Dalai Lama expressed his ‘willingness to settle for something less than independence’—was ‘well received’ by the world community, solidifying the Dalai Lama’s reputation as a leader who was reasonable and seeking a compromise solution. This change of stance not only earned the Dalai Lama the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 but also made the Tibet question a part of the domestic and international politics of the US. The ‘Tibetan Policy Act of 2002’ carried forward the old tradition and reinstated the importance of the Tibet question as a crucial factor in Sino-American strategic relationship. But Trump’s recent decision on Tibet turns the whole situation upside down and generates curiosity among political scientists and diplomats as to how this situation can be interpreted. Is it the dead end of the US’ long-held Tibet agenda? Is this change inspired by the global economic and geopolitical conditions in which the increasing presence of China is pressurising the US to mend its foreign policy? Or is this turn of events just a part of Trump’s populist agenda?

Amidst the rapidly changing world order and global political conditions, the struggle of Tibetans for freedom and democracy itself is fading day-by-day. The decision to cease all aid to the Tibetan people by America would be looked at as a likely consequence of the changing world order in addition to a major action towards declining global support to the Tibetan struggle for their homeland. Even though the ‘Tibetan cause’ was very well supported, both on moral and political grounds, the struggle still remains at the same place and the negotiations have not been able to make the world take it to an another level. (Goldstein 1995) No country in the world, including the United States and the United Nations, has clamped any economic blockade and created diplomatic pressure to compel China to moderate its policy toward Tibet. Neither could the US do what Russia did for Mongolia in 1945 by pressurising China to accept plebiscite for Mongolia. The trade relationships of many countries with China never allowed these countries to support the Tibetan leadership openly. They only sympathised with the Central Tibetan Administration and the exile government functioning from Dharamshala, India. (Aneja and Kumar 2006)

In the process of regaining freedom, the Tibetan movement has lost its traction over time, due to the paucity of financial aid. The five decades of global hand-holding have led the Tibetan leadership to be plagued with compla-cency, division and internal disharmonies that were well reflected in the recently held general elections for the post of the Prime Minister and Members of Parliament, when for the first time dissenting voices were raised against the negotiation policies of the Dalai Lama. Further, the irony of this stateless and territoryless democracy is that in the last fifty years it has never succeeded in evolving a strategy to survive on its own as the Tibetans were not able to generate resources by either means — trade and intellect, like the way the Jews had contributed to the American and European economy, with science and intellect during the period of ‘Great Depression’. The total survival of the exiled Tibetan community on foreign aid had made their position akin to that of a parasite and this dependency had continuously weakened their struggle. The Tibetan government-in-exile was often blamed by their own people that it failed to take appropriate political and diplomatic steps to engage with the Chinese Government for a long-term solution. (Aneja and Kumar 2006)

In the past, the United States invested an annual budget of $ 34 million to support Radio Free Asia, an instrument of free speech, but this voice failed to raise its tone at the most appropriate time of diplomacy which not only upset the United States but gave it a notion that the funds were not properly utilised. By slashing the budget, the US, under the guise of promoting freedom and democracy, has failed to fulfil pragmatic goals in the context of Tibet. Tibet received more than $ 24 million as financial assistance from the US last year for their various welfare programmes. The further removal of the decades-old Tibet Fund and the proposed zero dollars against the Ngwang Choephel Fellow, which accounted for more than a million dollars in 2016-17, has made the future of many social welfare programmes of the Tibetan community uncertain like the NGO programmes benefiting the Tibetan refugees in South Asia; the Tibetan Scholarship Programme for Tibetans outside Tibet; Radio Free Asia’s Tibetan Service and many others. The Tibetan government-in-exile is in a state of shock and is not in a position to devise an immediate mechanism to handle this.

It is a well known fact that China had a fundamental national interest in retaining power in Tibet as it is its anchor in the Himalayas. If that loosens, the vast buffers between China and the rest of Eurasia would break down. (Goldstrein 2005) The autonomy of Tibet would also open the door to Indian expansion due to the emotional attachment it has with India for providing refuge to Tibetan migrants. (Singh 2006) That is why, China is very particular about Tibet and reacts on each and every action which supports the Tibetan struggle. (Scott 2008) The China-American trade and diplomatic relations never led China to forcefully counter the Tibet pressure at inter-national forums as China’s dependency on exports to the United States forces it to deal with the matter more strategically.

In contrast, despite a historical political identity entwined with China, Tibet from the decade of the 1950s looked towards India to support its struggle by helping the Dalai Lama to raise his voice at various global forums. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the British also had an active policy to create a buffer against China in the form of an independent Tibet during the post-World War I period, but unfortunately it failed due to the changed politico-economic scenario of following World War II. Due to the new world economic order that emerged after World War II, the Tibet issue became passive for some time in the post-liberal era.

Historically, East Asia has proved to be a stumbling block to the global ambitions of the US. To retain its economic and political dominance, the US has mainly relied on the strategy of war and economic blockades. Unfortunately, both the strategies, specially in the context of the East, has not won the intended results. Even the US’ Vietnam experiment ultimately backfired and not only did economic and human losses mount but also undermined the status of the US as a single world power. The US is also in a fix as to how to proceed in the matter of the South China Sea conflict between China and Japan. In the Far East, Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions and irresponsible attitude posed serious security threats not only to the US itself but also to its ally, South Korea.

The US has substantially failed to cash in on the Tibet opportunity as it did in the case of Israel. Further, the emerging ideological and geopolitical conflict between China and the United States has provided an opportunity for the countries in Asia to exploit their own national interests and to strengthen their geo-political ties with either Washington or Beijing, thus making the issue relevant. China’s rise on the world stage and recent outreach to South Asian countries—Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal—in the form of financial aid and trade relations is helping the region to diversify relations with other partners and is consistently reducing the political and economic influence of the United States in the region. In the absence of a reliable partner in South Asia, like Israel in the west of Middle-East, the US is not able to convince the new partners to join its liberal order.

The recent political trend showing the willingness of more countries to join China is further pushing the US policy to work closely with like-minded partners in the region to reinforce their support for the international liberal order. The recent step of the US to withdraw its financial support to the Tibetan community may be seen as an initiative to normalise its relations with China by starting a strategic dialogue to manage political conflicts in the region, especially when Putin is becoming more visible day-by-day and is changing his tone on the issue of North Korea.


Aide-memoire from the US State Department to the British Embassy, July 13, 1942, FO371/35756, British Foreign Office Records, The National Archives of the United Kingdom (UKNA). Retrieved from https://case.edu/affil/tibet/tibetanSociety/documents/TheUnitedStatesTibetandtheColdWar.pdf

Aneja, Urvashi and Atul Kumar, 2006, “Tibet, Connectivity, Capabilities and Consequences”, Peace and Conflict 9 (9): 36-39.

Goldstrein, Avery, 2005, Rising to the Challenge: China’s Grand Strategy and International Security, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Goldstein, Melvyn C., 1989, A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goldstein, Melvyn C., 1995, “Tibet, China and the United States: Reflections on the Tibet Issue”, Occasional Papers, Atlantic Council Publications.

Goldstein, Melvyn C., 2006, “The United States, Tibet, and the Cold War”, Journal of Cold War Studies 8 (3): 145-164.

Piccone, Ted., 2016, “The Geopolitics of China’s Rise in Latin America”, Geoeconomics and Global Issues, Brookings Paper 2: 4-5.

Scott, David, 2008, “The Great Power ‘Great Game’ between India and China: ‘The Logic of Geography’”, Geopolitics 13 (1): 1-26, DOI:10.1080/14650040701783243

Singh, Bawa, 2006, “India, China and the Politics of Regionalism”, Peace and Conflict 9 (1): 29.

Pradeep Nair, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor and Dean, School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. He can be contacted at e-mail: nairdevcom@yahoo.co.in

Sandeep Sharma is a Research Scholar, Department of Mass Communication and Electronic Media, School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala.

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