China, the Dalai Lama and the Future of Tibet

M.L. Sondhi

Tibetan Review, August 1983

No firm progress is in sight in Sino-Indian relations unless the framework of inquiry provides a central role to the high politics embedded in New Delhi’s commitment to the Dalai Lama of Tibet. The sceptical stance of high Chinese officials and of some of their clients among Indian politicians is self deceptive. India’s relations with the Dalai Lama are clearly of vital importance and have been decisively reaffirmed by each successive Indian Prime Minister. India cannot abandon the Dalai Lama, and the Chinese will pay dearly for making the mistaken assumption that the Indian side can strike a deal that would impose unacceptable costs on him. Inspite of Peking’s attacks and enticements, the Dalai Lama has shown increasing confidence in projecting the international personality of himself and his people in the last three decades. Although India has not been a radical force in helping the Tibetan struggle against Chinese exploitation, yet it is an integral part of Indian political realism to refuse to subscribe to any Chinese formula of unconditional surrender. A more prevalent feature of Indian politics in the 1980s is a growing disposition to sanction moral and political support to the Dalai Lama in projecting his diplomatic power and capability on the international scene. The Indian commitment to the Dalai Lama is on a broader range of subjects today than it was when he took shelter on Indian soil: Human Rights, International Peace, Buddhist Culture, Himalayan Ecology, Disarmament and confidence building in Sino-Tibetan Relations.

In seeking the peace diplomacy with China, India is taking advantage of the present changes in the world situation. The rulers in Peking have given close attention to the Moscow-New Delhi relationship, and the new Chinese leadership under Teng Hsiao-ping has a clearer picture of the complex domestic political reality that exists in India. On its part India with its bitter memories of 1962 will demand proof that China-India rapprochement will not result in the intensification of Chinese hegemonist power in Tibet. All major Indian initiatives for a better relationship between China and India will inevitably require a direct involvement of the Tibetans in exile led by the Dalai Lama if the frustration and bitterness of earlier decades of Sino-Indian relations are to be avoided. Since both India and China have now powerful military forces at their disposal, and India enjoys a special relationship with the Soviet Union, Peking would be foolish to hope that the Chinese can in the foreseeable future compel the Indians to abandon their commitment to the Dalai Lama. Realistically, time is on the Dalai Lama’s side, since China can gain little and lose much by adopting a sterner position towards Dharmsala. Teng cannot adopt any acceptable public posture towards India which provokes sharp criticism by the Dalai Lama and the overwhelming majority of Members of the Indian Parliament who feel that Peking’s ability to improve its image in India is directly related to the Tibetan judgement on Han behaviour in Tibet.

The despatch of the Tibetan delegations to improve relations between Dharamsala and Peking have helped in the overall process of reality-testing and although both sides have presented varying interpretations, a new perspective has undoubtedly opened in which it has been revealed that there is a broad range of interests which are important to both sides. It has been clearly shown that in China’s efforts to stabilise its international environment, the Dalai Lama occupies a very high priority. The Dalai Lama’s diplomatic efforts have disclosed a new direction for moving towards options acceptable to the Tibetan people through a step-by-step programme.

What is the likelihood of success through the channel of communication which appears to have been discovered by an Indian Member of Parliament in his talks with the Chinese Vice-Premier Mr. Wan Li? There is nothing very subtle in the signal conveyed by the words: “We want the Dalai Lama back but we can do without him too.” The rulers in Peking know fully well that it is impossible through this type of manoeuvring to produce a real thaw in Sino-Indian relations. Both New Delhi and Peking have by now a reasonably good idea of what constitutes a constructive movement in their relations. Neither of them, nor Dharamsala, has any dearth of preliminary contacts and explorations, and they certainly do not need S. Swamy’s “Peace Hoax” to reassess policy postures. A careful reading of materials from Peking and Dharamsala would dispel the myth that atmospherics with minimum content like those in the Wan Li interview to the Indian M.P. are needed to emphasis the emergence of a substantive Sino-Tibetan (Dharamsala) relationship. The style and vocabulary of the Dalai Lama’s statements have correctly underlined Dharamsala’s positive response to Peking’s overtures, and if the dialogue is to be made more feasible interlopers like S. Swamy can only produce cognitive dissonance.

Dharamsala would do well to develop a more elaborate approach towards understanding the basic facts concerning the internal situation in China, including the different groups in the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

Political succession in Peking is likely to lead to further institutional rearrangements and there is no reason why the Dalai Lama should not be able to utilise the political-institutional developments to elicit support from elements within the rather anarchic power structure of China. There is a school of China experts which regards Chinese strategic calculations as having some sort of final decisional power. More important perhaps is the fact that new messages from the Dalai Lama have given rise to various “theses” about neutralising the influence of reactionary groups. Dharamsala can draw satisfaction from the fact that it has been able to generate pressures which may be beneficial to the Tibetans in Tibet.

Dharamsala can also follow the course of events in Taiwan and Hongkong with the greatest attention. The more Dharamsala condemns the past crimes of the Chinese Communists in Tibet, the more it shifts the onus on the Peking rulers to show that they are people with good intentions who can be trusted. Dharamsala should have no hesitation in initiating private talks with both Hongkong (British) and Taiwan and compare notes for detecting opportunities for constructive movement in negotiations with Peking.

The crucial decision of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Lhasa should not be related to the amelioration of the Chinese attitude to Buddhist religion. It does not lie in the power of Chinese to adversely affect the religious position of the Dalai Lama as indeed the Soviets have not been able to adversely affect the religious role of the papacy at the international level. By his visit to Lhasa the Dalai Lama can take advantage of the great prospects for structural change in the international and regional relationships flowing from Chinese involvement in Tibet. The Dalai Lama’s Lhasa visit can include elements of both conflict and cooperation if it is made part of a larger strategy to take Tibet out of the international power struggle. On no condition should the Dalai Lama give a diplomatic victory to Peking by undertaking a “solitary” journey to Tibet. Dharamsala should inform both the audience in Tibet and the international audience that the Dalai Lama will visit Tibet in 1985 as part of a unique occasion to bring people from all over the world for an International Peace Conference in Lhasa. Dharamsala should show its readiness to become involved with Peking in the necessary preparatory phases of the IPCL (International Peace Conference in Lhasa). The Chinese are unlikely to give a final approval to the proposal without rather extensive probing. Even if there are some hostile interactions to begin with, Dharamsala can try to identify the norms and rules which would legitimise an international peace movement in Lhasa in the eyes of the present Chinese rulers.

In some ways Dharamsala could handle adverse reactions by the Chinese by tracing the course of events in Sino-Soviet strategic interactions and pointing to the intensive pressures that Moscow could apply in Tibet when the chips are down. The active Soviet role in India about which the Tibetans have first-hand knowledge is also not without policy relevance for Peking. A close examination of the web of relations between India, China, Tibet and the Soviet Union can help the Chinese policy makers to take into account the long term factors which make the Dalai Lama’s international position very competitive.

Dharamsala should be looking at what is happening in Poland in the context of the unilateral moves made by the Vatican. Friendly conversations with the Chinese leaders cannot harm the cause of the Tibetans provided the Dalai Lama focuses on the holistic understanding of the Communist crisis in Tibet. He must ask Peking in no uncertain terms to restore interpersonal relations among Tibetans. He must also refuse to close the Tibet Chapter and set the final seal on the Chinese armed intervention in Tibet. Like in the case of the Pope, the influence of a single personality in Dharamsala is a symbol of the rights and dignities of not only the Tibetans but of millions in Asia and in the world. What the Dalai Lama says in Lhasa should not be a culture-bound activity; it should amplify for the mass media the same universal message which the Dalai Lama should continue to give from Dharamsala.

The directions of accommodation with Peking may lead the Dalai Lama to any one or more of the following models: (a) The Vatican model (b) The Taiwan model (c) The Hongkong model (d) A sui generis Tibetan confederal model. At an international conference in Lhasa, the Dalai Lama and his advisers will possess enough diplomatic, political and strategic flexibility to make a meaningful cooperative effort. There should be no foolhardiness about the policy coherence in Peking’s bureaucratic structure of power. From this perspective the apparatchiks in Peking have developed a strategy which focuses on getting the Dalai Lama back and then closing the door on his exit. In the final analysis, therefore, the future of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan identity hinges upon the ability of Dharamsala to avoid a narrow configuration which would limit the Dalai Lama’s freedom of action. With a sense of participation in global and regional issues of peace and conflict resolution the Dalai Lama should test Peking reactions, permit himself a clear line of retreat if the need should arise and work through small steps for playing a multidimensional role for developing a stable and peaceful society in Tibet. The historically shared experience of exile in Dharamsala has provided the Dalai Lama with diplomatic and ecumenical contacts which have a potential role in the future. The stabilisation of the institutions developed in Dharamsala are an authentic requirement for the ultimate protection against political and cultural oppression.
<< Back