The Return of Tibet to World Politics

M.L. Sondhi

Tibetan Review, October 1989

Political opportunism and the theme of Tibet as a lost cause

The Government of India’s action in stiffing discussing of Tibet in the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1950 had the result of swinging the political pendulum against any serious resistance to Chinese encroachment and expansionism.  New Delhi’s opposition to the inscription of the Tibetan item on the agenda of the General Assembly was a short-sighted and opportunistic posture, which under the guise of seeking a peaceful solution strengthened the inclination to sweep the matter under the carpet.  There are many dimensions to the marginalisation of the Tibetan issue in international politics, but there can hardly be any doubt that India’s abdication of its role, in respect of a country with which its strategic interests were intimately connected, was highly anachronistic.  The British who had a greater understanding of the history and culture of Tibet than any other western country lacked the leverage to accomplish anything meaningful once they had decided to downplay the potential hegemonic tendencies in Communist China.  Britain’s opportunism was expressed by gearing its tactical moves on Tibet to the contours of Indian compromises and by its refusal to make a constructive and imaginative contribution towards strengthening the legitimacy of basic Tibetan interests in the comity of nations.  While New Delhi and London both prevented each other from adopting more assertive policies on Tibet, the distinctive characteristics of their respective political opportunisms fused into a common central thesis that Tibet was a lost cause.  The Indo-British policy of backing China in denigrating Tibetan freedom led to the most serious international consequences.  It effectively prevented the rest of the world from seeing Beijing’s policy towards Tibet as imperialist.  It prevented the Tibetans from finding common ground with other countries which rejected the simplistic attribution of “liberation” to Chinese imperialist actions in Tibet.

Apart from the abdication of responsibility by India and Britain, there were other trends in international politics which came in the way of the Tibetans achieving their political goals in cooperation with the international community:

1.                   The illusion of the “success” of the Chinese revolution.  The flaws in the revolutionary strategies of the Chinese Communists are only beginning to be understood.  For instance, it is becoming clear that there were deep seated differences in perspective about regional and minority problems, and the Maoist regime did not enjoy more than a fragile policy consensus.  The inherent contradictions of the Chinese revolution were, however, generally ignored by a world which was prepared to overlook the anti-democratic and inhumane actions of a regime which appeared to control the political space of a newly-emergent nation which had broken the shackles of the old colonialist order.  There was little or no serious debate on the costs and consequences for the immediate victims of Chinese Communist aggression and violence.  The incentive to ignore Tibet was strong.

2.                   Interventionism of the superpowers.  In the midst of the Cold War when worst-case scenarios prevailed and both the Soviets and the Americans renewed their geopolitical interest in interventionism, there was an underlying reluctance to focus sharply on Chinese misconduct in Tibet.

3.                   Underestimation of the strategic significance of Tibet.  The strategic questions which were given special urgency during the Cold War did not point towards Tibet.  With the new approach to coexistence through schemes of disengagement, Tibet’s significance for arms control and disarmament becomes crucial, but it was not a core issue in the maintenance of global equilibrium among the superpowers under confrontationist pressures.  It will certainly be a core issue under a comprehensive concept of international security.

4.                   The erosion of human rights in Asia.  The worsening of the human rights situation in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and in South Africa led the international community to press for radical steps to cope with the situation.  This is demonstrated by proposals to deal with human rights violations in these areas.  The contribution of the international community to the maintenance of human rights in Asia remains a modest one.  The violation of human rights in Tibet and the Chinese version of apartheid has been disregarded by governments which have been politically more self-confident in dealing with Moscow or Pretoria.

5.                   The normative connotation of Tibetan non-violent resistance.  The lack of a violent strategy by the Tibetan leadership in exile resulted in a political vacuum in the mind of the international community which is accustomed to dealing with violence and military preparations by exile organisations like the PLO.  Unless a new mentality favouring non-violence is generally accepted in international relations, the Dalai Lama with his persistent desire to practice Buddhist non-violence is at a disadvantage in advocating Tibetan freedom in the context of contemporary realities in which he found himself after his gaining asylum in India in 1959.

Taking into account the variety of causes which made the international community unwilling to accommodate the Tibetan viewpoint, it would be right to say that the Dalai Lama gave demonstration of his “new thinking” when he continued to challenge the questionable assumptions of the “lost cause” thesis in the light of universal goals.

Change in the international system: Taking Tibet seriously

From its inception, the Dalai Lama’s diplomacy in exile has stressed the interdependence of national interests and universal human goals in accordance with the Buddhistic rejection of militarised systematic conflicts.  The Dalai Lama’s “new thinking” has long reflected some of the serious concerns which Gorbachev has made popular since the assumption of office as Secretary General in 1985.  He oriented his conduct in foreign affairs by stressing the interdependent nature of the world.  He did not accept the wisdom of the nuclearised bi-polar world and identified Tibetan ethos with improvements in global and regional security through a demilitarised and de-nuclearised status for Tibet.  His readiness to search for agreed solutions even with China, which had indulged in horrendous repressive and destructive activities against the Tibetans, signified a rare intellectual awareness of the need to improve the political climate of the world in the interests of human survival.   

With the two Superpowers now moving away from confrontation to a normalisation of relations in a number of fields, their proposals for global cooperation provide Tibet a unique opportunity to become once again an inalienable component of an interdependent world.  The Tibetan leadership in exile must be taken seriously since it was among the first in the world to reject a zero-sum conceptualisation of international relations.  It is not unreasonable to hope that Tibet may play a constructive part in environmental and humanitarian issues which now need special and urgent attention by the UN.

Diminishing returns to Chinese imperialism in Tibet.  In discussing the possible futures which Asia might confront, Owen Lattimore was among the earliest to underline the fact that Tibet would provide diminishing returns to any imperialism.  It is only through coercive power that China is able to maintain what little semblance of political stability she can claim.  The Tibetans continue to stubbornly resist Chinese overlordship and apart from a handful of collaborators the vast majority of the Tibetan population regard themselves as implacable enemies of the Han Chinese.  This is likely to remain the behavioural pattern in any prognosis of the future of Tibet under Chinese occupation.  The Tibetan people, as they share common frustrations and sufferings, have become ever more united in their loyalty to the Dalai Lama and show no receptivity whatsoever to the indoctrination by the Chinese.  Even a stance of moderation will not lead to a sophisticated political policy in the absence of a modus vivendi between the Chinese and the Dalai Lama.  The Chinese thesis of “national liberation” has prevented Beijing from developing political imagination to achieve realistic objectives in Tibet.  They have brought neither freedom nor economic prosperity to the Tibetans. They have failed to convince the outside world that the PLA had not used national liberation as a pretext for the enslavement of another nation.  The denial of political participation to the Tibetans and their appalling economic situation have shown that Chinese policy is oriented towards colonialism and lacks a genuine peace strategy.

Choices on Tibet

Much of the conventional analysis of the international setting in which Tibet finds itself is unfounded.  The simple picture of Tibet which can no longer realistically sever its ties with the Chinese is not justified by facts.  There are newly emerging constraints on Chinese policy which need to be carefully analysed.  A gradual shift is occurring in the interests and perceptions of other countries in response to the criticism of legislators and concerned citizens of Chinese behaviour in Tibet.  An important development is the increasing realisation in India that its strategic interests cannot be served by risks involved in the continued military occupation of Tibet by China.  In the absence of confidence building measures which would actively involve the Tibetans, India is not prepared to freeze the status quo which the Chinese would like to do.  A south Asian détente could produce options favourable to Tibet on the part of most of the AARC countries.  Congressional initiatives in the United States have laid the ground work for a change in US attitude to Tibet’s identity and existence.  Gorbachev has, it is true, refrained from developing a dialogue with the Dalai Lama. There are, however, many contacts between Soviet and Tibetan officials and there are meaningful allusions in Soviet “new thinking” which can be used to further the relationship between Russians and Tibetans.  The prospective trends in Europe and Japan favour Tibet.

A.             The pivotal importance of Tibet for Indian national security.

The roots of Indian anxiety about national security are related to the Chinese military occupation of Tibet.  Despite indications of a more flexible attitude towards India, China’s military posture in Tibet is a continuing threat which is fraught with grave danger.  When the Chinese military units crossed into Vietnam on 17 February 1979, to teach Hanoi a lesson the action reminded Indians of the 1962 crisis.  With its strengthened military capabilities India’s changed military posture imposes a modicum of restraint on the Chinese.  But if India is not to reap a bitter harvest of recurrent conflict with China, the following elements must be given importance by India’s national security planners:  create a momentum for the reduction and eventual elimination of Chinese military forces in Tibet; actively support the demand for removal of nuclear installations and nuclear weapons from Tibet; restore Tibet as a zone of disengagement between India and China; and refrain from according further legitimacy to the Chinese presence in Tibet and work for the restoration of a politically viable regime in Tibet under the leadership of the Dalai Lama.

The proposition that Indians and Chinese can achieve a border settlement over the heads of the Tibetans is fallacious.  The most meaningful steps towards achieving peace between India and China lie in ending militarism and repression in Tibet.

B.            Patterns of Tibet policy in the other SAARC countries: Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka.

Pakistan:  Pakistan has strong reasons to support China and distance itself from Tibet as long as it is preoccupied with the Indian threat.  Power relations will, however, be drastically revised if there is a genuine South Asian regional détente.  Tibet is of importance to the interests of Pakistan as much as it is to those of India.  Pakistan has a regional interest in resolving the problem of Tibet and this will inevitably surface as Indo-Pakistan rivalry becomes less virulent.  Pakistan can see the parallels between the aggressive soviet and Chinese behaviour in Afghanistan and Tibet respectively.  There are undoubtedly complicated military, nuclear, political and economic factors which govern the Sino-Pakistan relationship.  But it would be sound and prudent for Pakistan not to be ruled by the logic of Chinese weaponry in Tibet and to indulge in a frightful waste of its resources in conventional and nuclear confrontation with India.  The pressure of new strategic concepts could help both India and Pakistan to relate each other’s cognitive structures towards a possible convergence of the buffer status of both Tibet and Afghanistan.

Nepal:  No power in the SAARC area has shown a grater interest in building a peace order than Nepal, which has identified its foreign policy with the peace zone concept.  From India’s point of view, with its traumas about the 1962 confrontation with China, there are no foolproof answers to the existing Chinese infringement of India’s national sovereignty.  India is, therefore, unwilling to lose its strategic assets under the earlier Treaty arrangement with Nepal and has adopted an increasingly conservative policy on the peace zone concept.  Nonetheless both Nepal and India have ample opportunity to relate their security requirements to the new operative framework which would come into being if the peace zone concept were extended to Tibet.  The potential coincidence of interests between Nepal and Tibet might start to unravel in the not too distant future.  Indian decision-makers who have created a crisis of confidence in Nepal over the question of transit rights need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of multilateral and pluralistic tendencies in the interests of a better world order.

Bangladesh:  The general impression gained after the emergence of Bangladesh from Pakistani tutelage was that the country would view its own independence as a historic event in decolonisation.  Dacca could have been expected to become a consistent supporter of Tibetans and other enslaved nations.  To increase its room for political manoeuvrability Dacca has been friendly to China and has sought to be a consistent supporter of regional cooperation having originally formulated the SAARC concept.  If intra-SAARC relations should improve and move towards multilateralism, Bangladesh’s overwhelming interest in meeting the threats posed by environmental degradation and in harnessing the water resources generally and those of the Brahmaputra in particular, would motivate it towards playing a positive role on the Tibetan issue.

Bhutan:  Among the SAARC countries, Bhutan is culturally and linguistically closest to Tibet.  This has not prevented a certain amount of antagonism creeping into the relations between Thimpu and the Tibetan exiles.  But as Bhutan attains mature diplomatic skill it is likely to put more emphasis on the idea of increased cooperation with a Tibet which could re-enter international life rather than pursue the provincialisation of its political life.

Sri Lanka:  Colombo’s decision-making is greatly changed since it laid the course of its policy towards China.  It has passed through moods of anxiety over its ethnic conflict and the induction of the Peace Keeping Force.  If India adheres to the moral and wise course of rejecting a “Cyprus solution” and the Sri Lankan leadership is able to prevail over the ruinous ethnic and factional struggles, Colombo would surely have gained enhanced confidence to place Tibet clearly on the agenda.

C.            The United States and Tibet: the significance of the new Congressional initiative.

Washington remained averse to developing viable political option on Tibet, till 22 December 1987 when President Reagan endorsed the Congressional initiative to include in legislation the following provision:  “the Government of the People’s Republic of China should respect internationally recognised human rights violations against Tibetans…. and should actively reciprocate the Dalai Lama’s efforts to establish a constructive dialogue on the future of Tibet.”  Subsequently the US Senate passed a resolution supporting the Dalai Lama’s peace diplomacy.  The important effect of these and subsequent Congressional initiatives on Tibet has been to start a process in which the foreign policy elite and American foreign policy makers can identify major alternative courses of action in direct response to the Dalai Lama’s efforts to mobilise world public opinion.  What this means essentially is that now the uncritical interpretation of the Chinese intentions in Tibet will be increasingly challenged and Tibetans will have the opportunity to influence the analysis and advice available to the US policy-making system.  In place of ad-hoc pressures, Tibetans can use the breakthrough to put across to the Americans their political aspirations and relate them to a broader base of shared objectives.

D.            The Soviet Union and Tibet: the conceptual frame of Gorbachev’s “new thinking” versus the Sino-Soviet détente.

The diagnoses and prescriptions of Gorbachev based on the proposition that every country’s interests should find a reasonable reflection in international politics yields a scenario which would provide a genuine alternative for Tibet’s future.  For the Russians to say this directly would be disruptive of their plans for a Sino-Soviet détente.  By deliberately building up cultural and semi-official contacts with the Tibetan exiles and by encouraging Mongolia and East European countries to maintain contacts with the Tibetan government in exile, Moscow has indicated that its interest in Tibet is not tangential.  In private conversations Soviet diplomats concede that they find Chinese statements on the situation inside Tibet both ambiguous and controversial.  It is interesting to note that Soviet and East European specialists on Tibet do not share the Chinese propensities to exaggerate the notion of the Han and the Tibetans belonging to the same family.  They are increasingly providing accurate descriptions of the underlying causes of hostility between the Chinese and the Tibetans.  With these facts in mind it should be clear that there are objective conditions for dialogue between the Soviets and the Tibetans in exile and Tibetan demands are likely to gain increased attention in Moscow.

E.            Europe and Tibet: towards a common strategy

A cursory examination of the events relating to Tibet in Europe in recent years reveals the extent of beneficial interaction between Tibet and Europe.  The Dalai Lama’s address to members of the European Parliament at Strasbourg on 15 June 1988 attracted attention all over the world.  Its language, free from threats, was specially comprehensible to détente-minded Europeans.  The resolution on human rights in Tibet adopted by the European Parliament on 16 April 1989 and the statements of different parliamentary committees and groups in several European countries drew attention to the common interest that Europeans have in the Tibet issue.  The struggle for a new conceptualisation of the Tibet problem was made clearly visible at the Bonn Hearings on 20 and 21 April 1989 at the initiative of Petra Kelly, German Parliamentarian and leader of the green Party.  The Bonn Hearings hit the headlines in spite of the disruptive efforts by the Chinese and their supporters in Europe.  The declaration adopted after the Hearings struck the right balance and asserted the main principles for a Tibet strategy with consistency and firmness.

Proceeding from the premises of the Bonn declaration it is natural to visualise a more central role for Europe in convincing other publics of the need for active solidarity with Tibet.

F.             Japan and Tibet: from caution to an affirmative agenda

The ultra cautious approach of Japan in world affairs is giving way to a policy outlook in which Tokyo is using its potential for economic assistance to promote political results.  A positive and coherent policy towards Tibet has yet to emerge, although it is clear that the Japanese would like Tibet to be more open to the world system.  Serious attention has been paid by Japan to the prospects of a peace settlement in Cambodia.  Japan’s approach to Burma has shown innovativeness to meet the needs of a fluid situation.  Tokyo interrupted its aid to protest against repression in Rangoon and other places.  The resumption of full scale aid has been made conditional to a new government being elected.  With its growing role in international affairs Japan is likely to favour a liquidation of the colonialist situation created by China in Tibet.  One should also consider the possibility that Japan may be prepared to mediate a peace-settlement in Asia which could enable it to gain unprecedented influence in the regional and international order.  Tibet may soon find a pre-eminent place on Japan’s agenda.

Structural factors and processes in the international system: the scope for dismantling Chinese hegemony in Tibet    

The Chinese perception that Tibet is their bilateral concern is part of their persistent effort to maintain their hegemonistic position.  The truth is that the structural factors and processes in the international system do not encourage the preservation of this hegemonic role.  The Chinese would be a little wiser if they accept the number of shifts all over the globe in favour of multilateralism.  Having used their military capacity for an illegal armed intervention against Tibet, the Chinese take a less sanguine view of the limits of hegemonic integration.  They are also reluctant to introduce political changes in their domestic system and have in a specific and particularly inhumane way used their military capacity against their own citizens.  Tibetan interests can be pursued more energetically in the current transitional stage of the political organisation of the international system.  The dismantling of the Chinese hegemony in Tibet will not be the result of manipulation from outside.  The Chinese have driven themselves into a rigid position in which they oppose Tibetan autonomy and refuse to recognise the internal causes of social and political change in Tibet.  Chinese expansionism has come up against not only the interests of the people of Tibet but has sought to preserve a hegemonic role which is inconsistent with the rules of the international game.

The future for Tibet: Challenges and responses

We will now focus our discussion on some questions to which the right answers should be found if the influence and leadership of Tibet is to be asserted in world politics against the idiosyncratic characteristics of Chinese hegemonism.

1.             Can there be a sufficiently strong movement against “apartheid” in Tibet?

Unfortunately, the issue of racial discrimination in Tibet has been so far relegated to unimportance.  Yet this is an area which will yield high returns for the Tibetan cause.  Powerful forces are working in the United Nations, the Commonwealth and other international institutions to build pressure against apartheid in South Africa.  If these pressures succeed, the next area for action by the international community could be Tibet.  It would be profitable to start working on this now and create mechanisms for constructive engagement and making apartheid in Tibet a matter of paramount concern to the world community.

2.             Can the Tibet issue become a major aspect of the peace movement mobilisation in the world?

The Peace Movement has challenged existing security policies and channelized the widespread concern about the nuclear arms race.  The success of the Dalai Lama in projecting Tibet as a peace issue can be enhanced if the full range of activities and organisation forms of those supporting the Tibetan cause can be linked to a network of institutional alliances for ensuring human survival.

3.             Can the world community help to save Tibet’s ecological system?

The campaigns around the world in defence of ecology and environment have not yet been extended to Tibet.  What would be the equivalent of a Rainbow Warrior to highlight the mission to save the roof of the world from further ecological degradation at the hands of the Chinese?

4.             Can the Tibetan Government-in-exile be recognised by a sizeable number of governments?

It is not surprising that since the Indian government has not afforded recognition to the Tibetan government-in-exile, other states have not openly demonstrated their support for Tibet.  The remarkable thing is that India has lent legitimacy to the political authority of the PLO through recognition while showing no sensitivity to the case of Tibet whose status in international law is far more clear.  Recognition is an important legitimising resource and it seems axiomatic that the Tibetan message can be communicated with maximum effectiveness only if the process of recognition gets under way.

5.             Can the important and essential issues concerning Tibet be voiced in the UN forums?

The initial interest of the UN in the Tibet question lapsed.  The present time is propitious when both the Super powers have decided to make a constructive use of the world body.  Having gained her place in the UN Communist China can now be compelled to explain her national behaviour in respect of matters on the UN agenda. A properly coordinated UN strategy will not be ineffective if the diplomatic instruments at the disposal of the Tibetans are used with maturity and wisdom.

6.             Can the Tibet question be related to the basic aims and objectives of the Nonaligned Movement (NAM)?

It should be apparent that once the issue of Tibet is seen as a question of decolonisation and human rights, it can fall in place in the patterns of Nonaligned policy.  In any event the effort to work out a relationship the NAM should help the Tibetans to explain the essential components of Chinese expansionism and the risks it poses to the developing world.

7.             Can the Peace Zone concept be made part of a grand strategy for the future of global relations?

There cannot be any doubt that the Dalai Lama’s 5-point peace plan introduces a new perspective for a stable peace in the world.  Substantive progress could be made if de facto situations which can eliminate the vestiges of colonialism and ethnic violence through the peace zone concept could be interrelated.

8.             What kind of effort can be made to close the information gap on the Tibet issue?

Radio and TV are undoubtedly key assets which can help Tibet overcome the isolationism imposed by the Chinese.  The Dalai Lama has been projected effectively in the international media, but this is no substitute for a Free Tibet Radio Station.

9.             Can the concept of “the Vatican status” for the Dalai Lama help in the assessment of common Buddhist inters and make for a sounder basis of policy with other religious organisations?

The Vatican can provide precedents for diplomacy and statecraft which Tibet needs to design in order to cope with the harsh realities of the world and utilise the full dimensions of inter-religious dialogue.

10           Can Tibet become the fulcrum of an Asian peace order?

It would be an act of foresight if Lhasa could be made the headquarters of the UN in Asia and Tibet could be provided with a peace identity through which the systemic transformation towards an Asian Peace Order could be achieved.

The relevance of the Dalai Lama’s peace strategy

At the beginning of this essay we drew attention to the political opportunism of India and Britain, whose direct consequence was the marginalisation of the Tibet issue in world politics.  The international system of the 1990s provides an opportunity to mend the shortcomings of the earlier approaches to the Tibet issue.  Moreover, the Dalai Lama’s peace strategy is harmonious with other efforts to stabilise international relations.

The proposals of the Dalai Lama cannot be regarded as utopian: they challenges the role of Chinese hegemonic power through the joint efforts of the international community in a multilateral diplomatic process.  The continuing crisis in Tibet is in direct opposition to the peaceful developments which have been initiated by the Eat-West efforts to end the “New Cold War”.  The Dalai Lama has provided a coherent concept for real measures towards a more independent Tibetan position at a time when the hegemonic position of the two Super powers is in decline and the conflict potential in the Chinese system needs to be contained within the structures and processes of the international system.  While the Chinese continue to violate the rules of détente by their domestic and foreign policy actions, the Dalai Lama has used his international experience and Buddhist insights to address the central problems related to the new character of international relations.
<< Back