Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) unscheduled visit to Tibet on July 20 attracted extensive international attention.
Although Chinese media said that Xi’s visit was meant to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the accession of Tibet to China, Tibet has remained a politically charged issue for China as well as the international community.
The genesis of the turbulent ties between Tibet and China dates back to 1951, when the Chinese regime annexed Tibet through a seven-point agreement. China has used this agreement as proof of its sovereignty over Tibet.
Tibetans argue that they were forced to sign the agreement, leading them to revolt against the Chinese government in 1959.
However, China succeeded in quelling the Tibetan uprising, forcing the flight of the 14th Dalai Lama to India, along with hundreds of thousands of Tibetans. Since then, while the Dalai Lama heads the Tibetan government in exile in India, China has strengthened its control over the Tibetan region.
Undoubtedly, the major contusion between Tibet and China is their historical relationship. The Chinese government claims that Tibet has been a part of China since the 13th century, while Tibetans and their supporters claim that their relationship was of priest and patron; that Tibet was not a vassal state of China.
This historical differences regarding the nature of the relationship between the two sides notwithstanding, the Dalai Lama, realizing the power mismatch between them, advocated for genuine autonomy from China so that Tibetans could protect and preserve their distinct culture, social and spiritual identities, and the ecological uniqueness of Tibet.
Unfortunately, the Chinese regime has always doubted the intentions of Tibetans, and therefore it has pursued calibrated attempts to dismantle the historically important legacies of Tibet. It was preciously in this context that several monasteries were destroyed over the years, and Chinese culture, rules and regulations have been imposed on Tibetans.
At the same time, in the name of economic development, great damage has been caused to the biodiversity of the region. The influx of Han Chinese into Tibet has been viewed as yet another attempt to change the demographic structure in the region.
China has compiled its own reasons to govern Tibet. Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the integration of Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan have been among the communist regime’s goals. Thus, any attempt to give genuine autonomy to Tibet would weaken China’s control over Hong Kong and its assertive posturing against Taiwan.
The Chinese strategic community perceives Tibet as its back door and thinks that if it is open, it would be subjected to external threats. This concern assumes significance in the context of India’s policy to provide asylum to Tibetan refugees including the Dalai Lama.
More to the point, China suspects India of using the Tibet card in relation to China, as and when the situation demands. The increasing tension in Sino-Indian relations in recent times, coupled with China’s illegitimate claim over some Indian territory and Xi’s imperialist Belt and Road Initiative, have made Tibet all the more strategically important for China. After all, it is through Tibet that China can expand territorial imperialistic design.
It is for this reason that China has, over the years, made huge investments in developing Tibet’s critical infrastructure. Tibet is known as the Water Tower of Asia, as it has the third-largest store of water-ice in the world, and some of Asia’s largest rivers originate in the region.
Consequently, China has focused on diverting the courses of the rivers in Tibet to drier provinces. In this context, the Chinese government has initiated efforts to build a 1,000km tunnel — the world’s longest — to carry water from Tibet to Xinjiang.
However, the international community does not look at the Tibet issue through the prism of China’s interests. To the rest of the world, the Dalai Lama continues to be the legitimate political and spiritual leader of Tibet.
The international community also does not agree to China’s historical claim over Tibet. Therefore, as China aggressively pursues its imperialist desires, the world has increased its pressure on China over the issue of Tibet’s genuine autonomy.
In particular, India and the US have substantially reoriented their policy on the Tibet issue. India, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, no longer hesitates to publicly embrace its historical relationship with Tibet.
This can be gauged from the fact that Modi on July 6 wrote on Twitter: “Spoke on phone to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to convey greetings on his 86th birthday.”
In 2014, Modi invited Lobsang Sangay, the then-president of the Tibetan government in exile, to his swearing-in ceremony.
At the same time, the US has strengthened its support for Tibetan autonomy and religious freedom for Tibetan Buddhists with the Tibetan Policy and Support Act. This act specifically opposes any effort by China to select, educate and venerate Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders in a manner inconsistent with the principles of succession or identification of Tibetan Buddhist lamas, including the Dalai Lama.
The act says that leadership issues should be conducted without interference, in a manner consistent with traditional practice.
The US has also made it clear that the identification and installation of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders, including any future Dalai Lama, is determined solely within the Tibetan Buddhist faith community, in accordance with internationally recognized rights to religious freedom.
Amid the global support for the people of Tibet, increasing democratic voices in Hong Kong and Taiwan’s resilience against China, Xi’s visit to Tibet tried to showcase China’s resolve to dominate the region.
Thus, the larger question is: Will Tibet regain its historical status as an independent state or continue to perish under Chinese imperialist rule?
The international community should play a role in addressing the Tibet and Taiwan issues to strengthen the values of independence, democracy and human rights.
Sumit Kumar is a post-doctoral fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research and a former Ministry of Foreign Affairs visiting fellow at National Chengchi University.
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