Former US presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all met with the Dalai Lama. The only recent former president who never met him is Donald Trump.
Tibetans living in exile in India are divided into two main groups — the Central Tibetan Administration headed by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Youth Congress, which seeks Tibetan independence. There is also a group so fully integrated into India that it serves as a special operations unit called the Special Frontier Force, which cannot wait to get its hands on the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
An important thing to know about the Dalai Lama is that he does not call for Tibetan independence. He seeks a high degree of autonomy for Tibet under Chinese rule.
Furthermore, the Dalai Lama calls for unification between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait — as long as it happens under the values of democracy and human rights. This view is different from India’s “one China” policy. India does not recognize Taiwan and Tibet as belonging to China, and if China does not recognize “one India,” India will not recognize “one China.”
In the past few years, whenever the Dalai Lama spoke about visiting Taiwan, the media here only reported that he would like to visit.
However, Indian reporting says that the Dalai Lama has a precondition for visiting Taiwan, namely that he first wants to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in Beijing.
In other words, he would visit Taiwan under the premise of “one China,” but India would never agree to that.
The strategy of India’s foreign affairs departments regarding the Dalai Lama is to prevent him from visiting either side of the Taiwan Strait. They would prefer that he stayed in India, so they often refuse to grant him visas.
When dealing with the Tibetan issue, Taiwan, the US and Japan have to consider the role India plays.
The US did not have any problem with India’s role during Trump’s presidency, because Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have similar ideologies and attach more value to the security of their respective nations than to human rights issues.
An Indian security official recounted a preparatory meeting between US and Indian national security and diplomatic officials before Trump’s 2020 visit to India. US officials mimicked the Indian officials’ accents, which is something that diplomats should never do, but the Indian officials were not offended and the two sides continued making fun of each other.
This incident shows how cordial the two countries’ relations were at that time.
During the November 2020 US presidential election, Indian military leaders were said to have stayed up all night to watch the results, and when it became clear that Joe Biden had enough electoral college votes to assure him of the presidency, the generals all looked disappointed.
There is no meeting of minds between Biden and Modi as there was with Trump.
However, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken seems to be largely continuing the foreign policies of Mike Pompeo, his predecessor in the Trump administration.
Compared with the Tibetan government-in-exile, India can do more to effectively constrain China, so the exiled government would be useless without India’s support.
However, India’s approach to the Tibetan question does not correspond with US policies. For Tibetans themselves, the Tibet question is about human rights, life, property and religious freedom, but for India it is more about geopolitics.
Consequently, India might support Tibetan independence more than the Dalai Lama. This is because, from India’s point of view, if Tibet were to become independent, it would almost certainly lean toward India, and form a buffer zone between it and China, making it more difficult for Beijing to interfere in South Asia.
For these reasons, India’s attitude is to use the Dalai Lama as a figurehead.
The Dalai Lama himself has said that his reincarnation — the next Dalai Lama — might be born in India or Mongolia.
If the 15th Dalai Lama is indeed born in India, he might have different policies regarding Tibet than the 14th.
Wang Wen-sheng is a doctoral student at Jindal University in India.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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