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M.L. Sondhi

It must be conceded that from an academic perspective, the Chinese have not succeeded in delegitimating the Tibetan claim to be a nation. If we take the definition of a nation in a recent important study: “a territorially based community of human beings sharing a distinct variant of modern culture, bound together by a strong sentiment of unity and solidarity, marked by a clear historically-rooted consciousness of national identity and possessing, or striving to possess, a genuine self-government” (K.Symmons-Symonolewicz; The Concept of Nationhood: towards a theoretical clarification), Tibet is pre-eminently qualified to be a nation irrespective of the ideological and power-political arguments advanced by Beijing. The China-Tibet conflict is imbedded in a context in which Tibet enjoys a secure legitimacy as a nation reinforced by geographical perspectives and by the Dalai Lama as the focus of unity and solidarity of the Tibetan people. Again the world community has now become aware of the enormous human cost imposed by the Chinese occupation of Tibet. With the growing multipolarity and pluralism in the world, the hegemonic culture of Pax Sinica cannot any longer be used to defer a peace settlement of the Tibet issue as a resumed process of decolonization which takes into account the aspirations of the Tibetans. The stability of the regional and global geopolitical systems after the end of the Cold War requires that Tibet should be placed firmly on both the regional and global political agendas.

From the vantage point of India, the country most deeply affected by the perverse Chinese attitude to Tibet, there is a compelling diplomatic rationale for normalizing relations with China by simultaneously addressing the political geography of conflict and peace in Tibet. There is a distinctive role here of the Simla Agreement (1914), which was an attempt to stabilize the regional system and was in the context of the involvement of three dialogue partners: British India, Tibet and China. It is too early to comment on the variety of political, military and economic responses which China and India are developing in their ongoing normalization process, but it is quite clear that the exclusion of Tibet (led by the Dalai Lama) from the dialogic process is not conductive to the development of peaceful coexistence between the two Asian giants on a stable basis. The long term interests of both China and India will be served by placing Tibet squarely on the India–China strategic chess-board and by directly involving the Government-in-exile of Tibet in the Sino-Indian peace process on the Simla Agreement model. The post Cold War scenario can indeed be seen as a resumption of the trilateral talks policy of the earlier era and create the basis for recognition and development of Tibet as a Zone of stable peace. Both India and China need an independent Tibet if they are to break out of the straitjacket of military confrontation and achieve economic prosperity in the evolving plural international community. The great tragedy of the Chinese belligerence in Tibet was the closing of the window of opportunity of cooperation between New Delhi and Beijing. This window is now being slowly opened, but their relationship will remain vulnerable to sudden regression unless new building blocks are put in place in Tibet and the Roof of the World ceases to be a War Zone. Both India and Chinese decision-makers have in the last year endeavoured to play a more active role in exploring various options for a peace building enterprise but so far they have “put on ice” the political and strategic issues which are related to the underlying dynamics of the Tibetan cause. The dialogue has taken place at the level of Heads of State and Heads of Government and the Foreign Secretaries and the Defence Ministers of the two countries have all been active diplomatic players. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the absence of the Dalai Lama in this dialogue is a debilitating limitation. The challenge for Indian foreign policy is to pursue its bilateral political and economic interests with China and also present a coherent strategy and diplomatic thrust for serious negotiations for a democratic dispensation in Tibet. New Delhi has to develop a phased and selective approach beginning with the spotlight on Chinese human rights abuses in Tibet, developing an international pressure against further cycle of violence and repression by the Chinese security forces in Tibet and help to break the impasse in the development of a valid political process between China and the Tibetan-Government-in-exile.

After the Cold War, the concept of security is being broadened to move beyond exclusively military issues and territorial competition. Regional agreements for peace are now important components of the global system of international relations. In the recent past global and regional security issues have been brought together to ensure people’s right to determine their own political destiny. While Afghanistan, Cambodia, Angola, Namibia and the peace process in the Middle East have witnessed sustained efforts to end protracted conflicts, the alternatives for the solution of the Tibet problem have not been adequately examined for their likely contribution to the stability of the global geopolitical system. The possibility of an Independent Tibet could not be realistically considered as long as the bipolar structure of the world was being maintained. American policy makers could never persuade themselves to look beyond the hegemonic order imposed by China on Tibet since it did not directly affect their “containment” strategy. They accepted without question Chinese geopolitical thinking from an expansionist view point towards Tibet. With the remarkable change in the dyadic Soviet-American relationship and the assumption of Presidency by Bill Clinton, those who were locked in a cold-war paradigm on Tibet have been jolted. The American policy towards Tibet has probably reached a fundamental turning point and we may soon see the new Administration enthusiastically pursuing ideas for placing the Tibet issue high on the agenda of world politics.

The profound and spectacular change in the international system as a result of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the decline of the ideological aggressiveness of Communism has produced grave uncertainties for the People’s Republic of China. The claim that Tienanmen Square has not succeeded in rocking the boat for Beijing’s rulers cannot be prescriptive about China’s role in world affairs or about her ability to cope with turmoil in Tibet. There are many simplistic notions about the resilience of Chinese Communism which may not stand the test of time. The fluid and complex environment rather points to a situation of political vacuum in which the inadequacies of Chinese capabilities are all too evident. There may not be strict parallels to the process of the dissolution of the “Soviet empire”, but there are many disappointments and reverses in store for the Beijing leadership as it seeks the alchemy of political authoritarianism and the Deng Xiaoping inspired economic reforms. Even as the Soviet Union was becoming debilitated both in the economic and political spheres, there were analysts and policy-makers who predicted that the Soviets would dominate an ever-widening geo-strategic realm. Similarly there are analysts today who find much that is persuasive in the growth of Chinese military power and develop projections of Chinese domination over Southeast Asia. This school of thought would even favour “appeasement” of Beijing ignoring lessons learnt by Europe after the Munich settlement. The bulk of evidence, however, suggests that China’s domestic and regional politics are in crisis and it would not be premature to suggest that Tibet may well be on the way to detaching itself from the Chinese geo-political region. We have seen in the last decades that both the super powers, the United States and the Soviet Union had to reconcile themselves to the kaleidoscopic changes in the global geopolitical terrain, and the former was realistic enough to pull out of Vietnam and the latter could not maintain its position of dominance in Afghanistan. The future global geopolitical scenario based on the American and Soviet experience strongly suggests that the Chinese will not be able to maintain their optimum strategic structure in Tibet and will be compelled to examine alternative models of geopolitics of peace and cooperation. The future stability of international relationships now demands that Beijing takes urgent steps to obliterate the ideological and political antagonism which it introduced into Tibet. It is, however, difficult to assess how much of the Tibet imbroglio can be laid at the doors of Beijing and what was the role played by duplicitous attitudes taken by Britain and India which were the two countries best equipped to maintain the stability of their relationship with free Tibet and burdened the international community with uncertainties regarding “sovereignty” and “suzerainty”. The uncertainty can only be ended by tackling the root of the problem and acknowledging the fact that there is something “unnatural” about Chinese hegemony over Tibet. This hegemony is against geopolitical realities and there is now an antiquated ring about Chinese insistence on maintaining their geo-strategic and ideological interests at Tibet without making any serious effort to redistribute their commitments in accordance with the independent national existence of the Tibetans. The unreformed world view of Chinese policy makers not only makes them reluctant to understand the core values of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile; it also threatens future interventionism against countries like Burma, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It is therefore necessary to raise the decisive questions about post cold war Chinese geo-strategy in respect of Tibet in both academic and policy discussion so that in the 1990s China may be encouraged to build a constructive middle ground. Fortunately the Dalai Lama has adopted a position of flexibility and it is not difficult to imagine that a reasonable level of confidence may be established between the two parties once the negotiations take place in earnest. The world community should not only give continuing attention to the Tibet problem, but it is also necessary that foreign policy practice of both European and Asian countries during the Clinton Presidency should move towards the diplomatic recognition of the Tibetan Government-in-exile. Such moves if concerted would be timely and would persuade the Chinese to modify their myopic geopolitical vision on the control of Tibetan territory.

Tibet is a land of vast resources and “imperialist” struggle between the Chinese and Tibetans only shows that Beijing still is out of touch on certain issues with the contemporary world. The introduction of participatory democracy in Tibet should be the practical rationale for international efforts to give a rightful place to the Tibetan people and to influence the future contours of the Asian-Pacific community in a benign direction. The problem should of course be handled with great sensitivity to the concerns of the Chinese and at every stage issues must be analysed in their proper context. But it is also necessary to provide new data, interpretations and images to the Chinese so that they overcome fears and stereotypes about Tibetans, Indians, Japanese and other Asians. It would be worthwhile paying special attention to the model of Swiss neutrality in Europe. A Swiss Model for Tibet would perhaps help the Chinese to rediscover the Tibetan identity, help in pacifying the Sino-Indian borderland and develop a larger framework of social, political and economic cooperation in which the expansion of China’s wealth and power would not need to be countered by a new containment doctrine.

When the Dalai Lama met Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1954, there was an opportunity for China to overcome its narrow definition of security. The 1990s present another opportunity to Chinese strategists to undertake a new security discourse with the Dalai Lama and in the process to initiate efforts for benign solutions Beijing’s problems with its other neighbours and also in the process to prevent made exacerbation of malign trends in United States Chinese relations. If, however, Chinese decision-makers do not utilize this opportune time, the demonstration effect of their “imperial overreach” in Tibet will set in motion trends culminating in a arms and territorial race in Asia–Pacific. In the end Chinese fears and stereotypes about Japanese militarism may become part of a self-fulfilling prophecy. At one level Tibet can be a catalyst for peace in Asia-Pacific and eventually become an indispensable partner for Beijing in a cooperative future. At another level the continuing apathy of Chinese political and bureaucratic circles to Tibetan peace and freedom may involve Beijing in a tragic waste of its potential and resources.

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