New US- China Cold War on Tibet and Take Aways for India
Vijay Kranti

(The tone and temper of the two latest laws of the USA on Tibet and Xinjiang that US-China honeymoon is over and we should be ready to witness a new phase of US-China cold war. Extraordinary coordination between Republicans and Democrats in both houses of the US Congress to push these Bills through even during peak days of their animosity indicates that Joe Biden may not be as soft to China as believed. The Tibet Bill has many take aways for India too. )

Many keen observers of America and its democratic system must be shocked by many unfortunate events related to Presidential elections and the Republican-Democrat rivalry. These developments gave many reasons to believe that this Presidential election is going to be remembered as the saddest chapter of the US democratic history. But few would have taken note of the extraordinary cohesion, comradely coordination and collective wisdom demonstrated by the same political rivals on some issues related to common national agenda. Voting patterns and floor coordination between the two rival parties in both houses of the US Congress on both laws which were passed in support of human rights of China’s two restive colonies Xinjiang and Tibet during peak months of Presidential election presented the other side of the American democracy.

The first of these two Acts was the ‘Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020’ which directs all concerned US agencies, including the Secretary of State to report on and act against human rights abuses by the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) and the Chinese government against the Uyghur and other Muslim Turkic people of Xinjiang. It specifically directs the Director of National Intelligence, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the US Agency for Global Media and the Department of State to report to the Congress on crackdown by Chinese government on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang; to protect the Uyghurs and other Chinese nationals living in USA and to impose sanctions on all such CPC leaders and Chinese officials who are involved in arbitrary detention, torture and harassment of people of Xinjiang.

A National Consensus

Interestingly, this bill was passed twice by the Senate with unanimous vote despite the fact that this House of 100 members had a delicate Republican majority with just 52 members whereas the Democrats had 46 and 2 were Independents. After passing the Bill unanimously on September 11, 2019 the Senate had to pass it again on May 14, 2020 after the House of Representative sent it back after making it harder against China on December 3, 2019 with a massive majority of 413 to 1. This was despite the fact that the Democrats held majority in the Lower House with 232 members as against 197 Republicans. President Donald Trump signed this Bill into an Act on June 17, 2020. And within three weeks of this law coming into force, President Trump’s administration applied it to impose visa ban and other sanctions against a number of senior Chinese officials who included Chen Quanguo who is the boss, the Administrator and Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang. These sanctions meant that in addition to ban on the entry of these Chinese leaders into USA the visas of their family members were also cancelled and their assets in US were frozen.

The second bill was on Tibet and titled as “Tibet Policy and Support Act-2020” (TPSA-2020) which was first passed by the House of Representatives on January 28, 2020 by 392-22 majority. When presented before the Senate it was referred to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations for detailed discussion. Finally the Senate approved the bill on December 21, 2020 with unanimous vote and President Trump signed it on December 27 to make it a law. An interesting feature of the passage of Tibet bill was that in order to ensure that the TPSA-2020 bill also becomes a part of the US constitution, the Senate passed the bill as a part of the spending bill because due to time constraints it was not possible for Trump administration and the Senate to reintroduce the bill on the House floor at the fag-end of Trump government’s term. President Trump too appeared over enthusiastic as he signed it on the very first day after the US government resumed work after Christmas break.

Trump’s Parting Gift to Biden

It now looks clear that despite all political differences with Mr. Biden and his Party the outgoing Trump government made all efforts to ensure that with these two new laws President elect Joe Biden should feel empowered enough to take China head on over Tibet and Xinjiang. Another clause of the new law on Tibet indicates that US intends to take the Tibetan issue to the international forums. It calls upon the Secretary of State to work in the direction of establishing ‘International Diplomatic Coalitions’ in order to coordinate international efforts in support of Tibet.

All this speaks a lot about the future policy of USA towards China. There are enough indications that Tibet and Xinjiang are going to be the next battle ground between US and China and that the US efforts are not going to be hindered by other differences between the Republicans and Democrats. May be to allay apprehensions of those who believed that if elected, Joe Biden would turn President Trump’s China policy upside down Biden, then already a presidential nominee, announced in September 2020 that “Biden-Harris administration will stand up for the people of Tibet.” He promised to work jointly with allied to put pressure on PRC to restart direct dialogue Between Beijing and the Tibetan representatives to achieve ‘genuine autonomy for Tibet’. The enthusiasm shown by Biden’s Republican Party in the passage of both bills and their inclusion into the US law book also indicate that US-China relations have entered a new cold-war era which may be more hot and less cold - at least on the issues of Tibet and Xinjiang.

The TPSA-2020 has many elements which are going to hurt Beijing at points where it hurts most. As this bill was presented before the two houses it was explained in its introduction that it was being done to ‘modify and reauthorize’ the earlier law on Tibet viz. TPSA-2002. There other elements related to Tibet which is already part of the US constitution which gives extra strength to future administration of the US to deal with China on Tibet while applying this Act. For example H.R.1415 - Foreign Relations Authorization Act (Fiscal Years 1992 and 1993) which became law on 28th October 1991 and is known as Public Law No: 102-138 says under it Section-335 that, “Tibet, including those areas incorporated into the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu, and Qinghai, is an occupied country under the established principles of international law."

Hitting China where it hurts Most

A good part of TPSA-2020 is focussed at Dalai Lama, whose mention in any context is enough to make most Chinese leaders go into a rage. In this law the US government has formally thrown its weight behind Dalai Lama on the issue of his reincarnation who shall be his successor as the next Dalai Lama of Tibet after his demise. The new US law openly supports present Dalai Lama (his personal name being ‘Tenzin Gyatso’ and he is 14th in the five Centuries old chain) and his ‘GADEN PHODRANG’ in the mattersrelated to identifying and installing the next incarnate child. Gaden Phodrang is the national trust of Tibet which handles all matters related to the search and identification of the next incarnate child, his upbringing and also implementing the personal authority and official responsibilities of every Dalai Lama as the supreme temporal and spiritual head of Tibet.

The Idea of Reincarnation

In Tibet the heirs of great spiritual masters and senior sect leaders of most of Buddhist lineages, including the Dalai Lamas, are selected through reincarnation. It is believed that each of these senior monks, also known as ‘Tulku’, is an enlightened being and manifestation of a specific aspect of Buddha, and hence all of them have the powers to direct their own rebirth. In China these Tulkus are referred to as ‘Living Buddha’. After the demise of a title holder his reincarnation is found among the newly born babies of Tibet on the basis of the indications left behind by the previous faith holder about his next birth and through a predefined system by a committee of other senior monks of the faith. Present Dalai Lama was born on 6th July 1935 in the family of a poor farmer of Amdo province of free Tibet (now ‘Qinghai’ province of China). He was identified by a search party of monks from Ganden Phodrang when the boy was four years old. He was later certified by a specially constituted committee of ‘Gaden Phodrang’ which conducted various test on him to further verify and reaffirm the previous team’s observations. Dalai Lama is considered to be the reincarnation of the ‘Karuna’ i.e. Compassion Buddha, known as ‘Avalokiteshwara’ in Sanskrit and ‘Chenrezi’ in Tibetan.

TPSA-2020 openly challenges PRC’s ‘Order-5’ which directs that each ‘Living Buddha’ of Tibet, including the Dalai Lama, must be identified and officially certified by the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) through its respective local, regional or central Buddhist Association, depending upon the level of each Tulku. Each of these Buddhist Associations is headed by a CPC leader and is directly governed by the United Front Work Department of CPC. The United Front is responsible for keeping all the 55 non-Han ‘minority nationalities’ of China under control. These include occupied countries like Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria; religious minorities like Muslims and Christians; and regional minorities like the Hui, Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Mongol, Bai and Miao etc.

‘Order-5’ and Communist Buddha

‘Order-5’ was issued by the State Administration of Religious Affairs Bureau of the CPC on 13 July 2007 and was made a national law on 1st Sep same year. It’s sole purpose is to use the Tulkus’ religious and social influence among Tibetan masses to keep Tibetan population under control. But seven decade long post-occupation history of Tibet shows that China has failed to win Tibetan people’s hearts. Besides a long chain of Tibetan people’s uprisings against Chinese occupation of Tibet the most glaring indicator of Tibetan people’s resistance again Chinese control over their country is self-immolation by more than 150 Tibetans in recent years. At the time of dying in flames, their common cries pertained to freedom of Tibet and return of Dalai Lama to Tibet. A large majority of self-immolators were young lamas, nuns and lay youths in 17-35 age group. The real target of ‘Order-5’ is to install a child of their own choice as next Dalai Lama after the demise of present Dalai Lama who turned 85 last July. Beijing leaders believe that once they have the Dalai Lama under their control then it will be easy for them to tame the Tibetan masses.

But TPSA-2020 of USA clearly states that, “It is the policy of the United States, (1) 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 in the context of the will of practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism; (2) the wishes of the 14th Dalai Lama, including any written instructions, should play a determinative role in the selection, education, and veneration of a future 15th Dalai Lama; and (3) interference by the Government of the People's Republic of China or any other government in the process of recognizing a successor or reincarnation of the 14th Dalai Lama and any future Dalai Lamas would represent a clear violation of the fundamental religious freedoms of Tibetan Buddhists and the Tibetan people.”

Reincarnation and the US Embargo on China

The TPSA-2020 directs the Secretary of State and all US agencies and organizations involved in dealings with the PRC government to implement the US embargo which include ban on the entry of every leader and official of PRC into USA who is involved in the Chinese driven selection process of next reincarnation. This sanction is going to hurt thousands of Communist leaders, officials and their wards and family members who have business interests in USA or have sent their children for students in USA.

Beijing-Dharamshala Dialogue: ‘No Preconditions’

USA has been always expecting Beijing to find a mutually agreeable solution with Dalai Lama. But Beijing had its own reasons not to pay head to this advice as its basic conditions were too harsh to be acceptable to Dharamshala. On one hand Beijing expected Dalai Lama only if he would not challenge China’s claim that “Tibet is an integral and inseparable part of China.” On this issue Dalai Lama’s response has been that “although Tibet has never been a part of China throughout history yet he would not insist on this issue and that he would be ready to accept Tibet under Chinese constitution and China’s communist rule provided Beijing is ready to give ‘genuine autonomy’ to Tibet. Beijing has consistently brushed aside this idea by claiming that the idea of ‘genuine autonomy’ was nothing more than a demand for Tibet’s independence in the garb of ‘autonomy’. The other serious point on which Beijing and Dharamshala have yet to agree is China’s insistence that any dialogue will be only for ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’ whereas Dalai Lama’s side claims that Tibet also includes its Kham and Amdo provinces which Chinese PLA had occupied between 1949 and 1951 before forcing Lhasa to sign on the so called ’17-Point Agreement’ to make Tibet part of China. TPSA-2020 is much harsher and more demanding on the government of PRC on this issue as compared to what it had called for in TPSA-2002. The new law has added the rider that these talks should be “without preconditions”. One wonders if an ever aggressive Xi Jinping would ever accept this US demand.

Who Represents Tibet after Dalai Lama?

Moreover, while TPSA-2002 stated that these talks should be held with “Dalai Lama or his representatives”, this condition has been replaced in the new law by “Dalai Lama or democratically elected leaders of the Tibetan community.” When applied on ground, this change is a direct recognition to the ‘Central Tibetan Administration’ (CTA) and the ‘Sikyong’ (President of CTA) whom Beijing has refused to even acknowledge. Beijing’s consistent approach on the Beijing-Dharamshala dialogue has been that it is only aimed at negotiating terms about the “return of Dalai Lama to China.” This change in the US approach towards Tibet, especially Dharamshala is significant in the light of the new role of CTA and the Sikyong as redefined by Dalai Lama in 2011. Through a historic change in the rules and traditions governing the role of Dalai Lama in the Tibetan system he has separated his traditional dual roles as the ruler as well as the supreme spiritual leader of Tibet. In August 2011 he revised the Tibetan constitution and the rules governing his own institution by handing over all of his political powers to the democratically elected Sikyong and the exile Tibetan Parliament thereby keeping the future role of the Dalai Lamas limited to just as the Supreme spiritual leader of Tibet. A major reason behind his move was to prevent China from usurping the political authority, vested in the institutionof Dalai Lama after his demise by imposing a puppet Dalai Lama of its own choice on the people of Tibet. The new US law has not only legitimized the status of CTA, Sikyong and the Tibetan exile Parliament as the true representatives of Tibetan people,it has also barred Beijing from playing any mischief on Tibet through installing a puppet baby of its own choice on the throne of Dalai Lama.

Another highlight of TPSA-2020 is the US government’s new willingness to strengthen and financially support the functioning of CTA, the Tibetan Diaspora’s rehabilitation and preservation of its culture. It has approved a total of about 160 million USD for next five years. This includes 5 million USD for the office of Special Coordinator for Tibetan issues, 40 million USD for TAR and Tibetan communities in China and about 37 million USD for radio broadcasts in Tibetan dialects aimed at Tibetans living under Chinese control. It has also formally put appreciation for the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Diaspora for preserving Tibetan identity and adopting and promoting a democratic system for themselves.

Demographic Colonialism & Settling Non-Tibetans in Tibet

This law specifically demands the government of PRC to “stop migration and settlement of Non-Tibetans” inside Tibet. It also calls upon it to stop relocation of the Tibetan Nomads and their forcible settlement in consolidated housing locations. The ongoing Chinese campaign of relocating over a million Tibetan Nomads into specially designated housing colonies has many strategic goals behind it. The Nomads account for almost half of population of the Tibet Autonomous Region andtheir number is also significant in original Tibet’s Amdo and Kham provinces which have been already divided and merged into adjoining Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai. One purpose behind this Chinese game is to bring the Nomads under direct vigilance and supervision of the Chinese security system as there have been innumerable instances of Nomads holding demonstrations and going violent against various economic and political restrictions put against them by authorities. Moreover, their free movement in jungles and mountains also gives them freedom to listen to radio broadcasts from abroad to keep abreast with the real situation of Tibet under Chinese colonial control. Yet another reason is the grabbing of fertile lands from the Nomads to be given to new Han settlers from China or to do uninterrupted mining because Tibet is rich in about 94 kinds of precious minerals like Uranium, Gold, Lithium, Copper, Chromium etc. For example, the main source of lithium for China’s thriving international business of lithium-ion batteries is Tibet. This law deals with water security and climate change in Tibet. It warns about environmental crisis taking place in Tibet due to abnormal melting of glaciers in Tibet and damming of Tibetan rivers.

Tibetan Identity

TPSA-2020 also demands the government of PRC to “address the aspirations of the Tibetan people with regard to their distinct historical, cultural, religious and linguistic identity”. This law also focuses on the complaints of Tibetans regarding inhuman treatment meted out to the Tibetan population in Nepal. For past many years the Nepalese government has ended its original practice of helping and handing over the Tibetans fleeing from Chinese control to the United Nations Human Rights Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Nepal. These refugees were subsequently allowed to enter India after necessary debriefing by Indian embassy in Kathmandu. But over the years Nepalese security forces have started arresting and handing these refugees back to Chinese border posts. In addition to exposing these helpless Tibetans to arrest and torture at the hands of Chinese authorities this practice has put a near complete end to the flow of new Tibetan refugees which used to average between 2000 and 3000 annually. TPSA-2020 directs the US Secretary of State to urge the Nepal government to stop this practice and honour its ‘Gentleman’s Agreement with the UNHCR’ and to provide proper documentation and basic security to Tibetan refugees already living in Nepal.

Demanding Diplomatic Reciprocity

Yet another issue which reflects the US government’s determination to stand up against the Chinese bullying is its resolve to take on the government of PRC on issues of reciprocity in the field of diplomacy. TPSA-2020 vehemently asserts right of USA to establish a US Consulate in Lhasa. It bars the government of USA from allowing the government of PRC to open any new Consulate office in USA until the latter agrees to accept the US demand on its Consulate office in Lhasa. USA and PRC are already at war with each other on this issue as USA closed Chinese consulate in Houston while PRC retaliated with closure of US consulate in Chengdu in July 2020. Similarly TPSA-2020 directs the Secretary of State to ensure that the American journalists and diplomats are given as much freedom to travel inside Tibet as the Chinese journalists and diplomats enjoy inside USA.

International Diplomatic Coalitions on Tibet

Yet another interesting aspect of the new US law on Tibet is its resolve to confront the government of PRC on the issue of Tibet and internationalizing it with the help of likeminded governments and international interest groups. It is perhaps first time after the Nixon-Kissinger duo initiated the one sided love affair of USA with Mao’s China in 1970s and started an unending process of giving in to PRC’s bullying and overreach, that US government appears to be reversing the process. TPSA-2020 calls upon the Secretary of State to work in the direction of establishing what it has termed as ‘International Diplomatic Coalitions’ in order to coordinate international efforts in support of Tibet. To start with, these ‘coalitions’ will be focussed at stopping China from usurping the institution of Dalai Lama and ensuring that China stops its ongoing campaign of appointing puppet Tulkus of its own choice to occupy the Tibetan religious establishment. Passage of a similar law of Xinjiang by the outgoing Trump government in active collaboration with rival Democrats to is a sign of changing US approach towards China.

Take Aways and Lessons of TPSA-2020 for India

This new US enthusiasm and resolve on the Tibetan issue presents a new silver lining for India which has been the worst sufferer due to Chinese occupation of Tibet. Here are a few take aways for the government of India and its policy makers from TPSA-2020 which can prove quite handy if they ever decide to take China head on to meet its challenges, especially those caused by occupying Tibet and using it as its launch pad against India.

  1. Consulate in Lhasa: The TPSA-2020 Act calls upon the PRC government to let US government open its Consulate office in Lhasa. It makes it obligatory for the US government to establish its Consulate Office in Tibet’s capital city Lhasa before the US allows any new Chinese consulate office/s to be opened in USA. Govt. of India should take cue and join hands with USA to further its own pending demand for re-opening its Consulate office in Lhasa which was closed after the ‘Panchsheel Agreement’ of 1954. As a part of the so called ‘Panchsheel’ Agreement (All the clauses of the agreement were purely trade related and had nothing to do with the principles of Panchsheel.) India had also surrendered its three trade offices in Tibet as well as its telephone/telegraph facilities and the right to maintain a contingent of soldiers in Tibet.
  2. River waters and Environment in Tibet: The TPSA-2020 gives special importance to preserve water resources and environment in Tibet. Among the objectives of the Special Coordinator (of USA for Tibet) the Act has specifically underlined his/her role to “promote activities to preserve environment and water resources of the Tibetan plateau”. Since the environmental degradation in Tibet by China’s policies of exploiting minerals, water and redirecting Tibetan rivers has direct impact on India and its environment, GOI should take cue from this policy of USA and assert its right to protect its interests, especially on the issue of constructing dams and power houses on Brahmaputra ( ‘Yarlung Tsangpo’) inside Tibet. India should also engage with China to desist it from using river water as ‘Water Bomb’ against India as happened on at least three times in the past (twice in 2000 and 2005). In the case of Tibetan rivers India should also join hands with other riparian countries including Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam etc. to lobby against China’s acts of disturbing river flow and stealing water from Tibetan rivers.
  3. Tibet as an ‘Occupied Country’: Since the US laws refer to Tibet as an ‘OCCUPIED COUNTRY’, India should make suitable and assertive amendments in its dealings with PRC on military stalemate along its Tibetan border. India is very much within its legal and moral rights to tell Beijing leaders that since China is making claims on Indian land only on the strength of its forcible occupation and presence on the land of a ‘third country’ i.e. Tibet, they have no rights to make claims on issues which were already settled between the governments of Tibet and India.
  4. Human Rights in Tibet: One of the major emphases of TPSA-2020 Act is on rehabilitation of human rights and cultural identity of Tibetans in Tibet. It directs the government of USA to take steps "to promote human rights and distinct religious, cultural, linguistic and historic identity of the Tibetan people…” India should lend its support to this objective of USA and raise its voice in favour of Tibetan people in suitable international forums and international media. There are two prominent and suitable issues on which India can put pressure on China. One pertains to self-immolation by over 150 Tibetans inside Tibet over past few years and the second is the unfortunate practice of Nepal government to hand over fleeing Tibetan refugees back to Chinese authorities. This issue can be strongly raised at the UNHRC as well as on other prominent international HR forumswith the support of USA.
  5. International Diplomatic Coalition: The TPSA-2020 Act puts special emphasis on forming international diplomatic coalitions of likeminded countries to put collective pressure on China. Since it is in tune with immediate needs of India, GOI should encourage this endeavor of USA by actively launching or joining such coalitions. It becomes both politically and morally necessary for India because PRC has left no stone unturned in various international forums to create problems and embarrassment for India.
  6. Dalai Lama’s Incarnation: Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism has very strong influence in entire 4000 km long Himalayan belt (from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh) between Chinese occupied Tibet and South Asian countries of India, Nepal and Bhutan. And since the present Dalai Lama happens to be an honoured guest of India and is the most respected and acceptable Buddhist spiritual leader of Indian communities in this Himalayan region, it will increase China’s capacities to play havoc for India and its neighboring Himalayan countries once it is able to install a puppet Dalai Lama. Since the issue of reincarnation of Dalai Lama has very serious implications for India, GOI should lend strong vocal and diplomatic support to CTA, USA and other interested groups on asserting that reincarnation of Dalai Lama and other Tibetan reincarnating Tulkus is the exclusive right of Tibetan people and the Dalai Lama himself. It is therefore very much in the interest of India that the next Dalai Lama should not fall in the hands of China.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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