Opening up the Tibet front?

Opening up the Tibet front?

Inscrutable China

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Last Updated : 22 June 2024, 21:06 IST

China’s recent aggression in every direction in its neighbourhood is leading to a storm building up for itself. Its massive and intrusive military build-up and exercises across the Taiwan Straits, South China Sea and on the borders with India are not only unnerving for the countries involved but are also causing them to push back.

The non-resolution of the border stand-off since 2020 has created an armed stalemate on India’s borders. Another front, albeit a politico-diplomatic one, is opening on the Tibet issue with the US congressional delegation’s visit to Dharamshala.

China upped the ante following the visit of Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August 2022 when she was Speaker of the US House of Representatives. China’s military crossed the median line that separates it from Taiwan, and has kept up its intimidatory tactics ever since.

On April 8 this year, it conducted “combat readiness patrols” in response to US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s visit to Taiwan. These Chinese intrusions have intensified after Taiwan’s presidential elections earlier this year. Yet, it seems, Beijing’s two-pronged approach – applying military pressure from outside and running influence operations inside Taiwan -- are not working.

China’s heightened political rhetoric on ‘One China’, frequent military activities, attempts to diplomatically isolate Taipei, or foment internal political struggles in Taiwan have raised concerns about potential miscalculation and accidents leading to an escalation in the Taiwan Straits.

Another potential conflict is emerging in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines at the Second Thomas Shoal. China claims 80 per cent of the whole region, despite The Hague tribunal quashing its claims in July 2016. On June 17, China’s coastguard vessels rammed into a Filipino military boat, armed with a domestic legislation to seize any foreign personnel in the disputed seas.

The ensuing skirmish left a Filipino soldier with a severed finger and two vessels destroyed. The incident came close to what Philippine President Marcos has declared as a red line – any Filipino casualty. The US invoked the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty with the Philippines, but tensions did not subside.

Closer home, China has not accepted the olive branch extended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his remarks to Newsweek last month. On the other hand, it has been exerting military pressure on the borders and in India’s neighbourhood, specifically in Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Despite 21 meetings at the military level for “dis-engagement and de-escalation” on the borders, three areas still remain contentious.

China is opening another front in Tibet. In August 2020, China’s Communist Party began “sinicising Tibetan Buddhism” and enhanced Han Chinese intrusions. China built more than 600 “well-off society” villages on the borders with India, Nepal, Bhutan and was even preparing to do so in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. Nearly one-third of these built-up structures came up on the path that the Dalai Lama took in 1959 while fleeing to India. It is an indication that Beijing is preparing to effect a transition to the 15th Dalai Lama. Beijing has announced that it will exercise a “golden urn” process of selecting the 15thDalai Lama, a bid to cause schisms among Tibetans.

The bipartisan US congressional delegation’s visit to Dharamshala on June 18-19 came in the light of these developments and was meant to apprise the Dalai Lama of the Resolve Tibet Act that the Biden administration is considering signing into law.

Among other things, the delegation suggested resumption of the stalled dialogue between China and Tibetan representatives, stopping Chinese disinformation about Tibetan history and culture and, intriguingly, “self-determination” for Tibet.

While US delegation visits to Dharamshala are not exactly new, considerable interest and publicity was generated both due to the “self-determination” comment and the delegation’s meetings with PM Modi and External Affairs Minister Jaishankar. Since the Roosevelt administration in the early 1940s, the US has considered Tibet a part of China (under the then Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek). The US continued to follow this policy even after China came under Communist rule, only raising human rights issues from time to time.

The Obama administration in its ‘G2’ phase with China downgraded the Tibet factor, signalled by Obama meeting the Dalai Lama in the Maple Room of the White House, meant for spiritual leaders, rather than in the Oval Room. Such obsequiousness toward China began to change with Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’, a change that accelerated under the Trump and Biden administrations. While India is cautious of the vagaries of US policy toward Beijing, the pounding pressure that China is exerting on Delhi may yet be a factor in how the Modi government views the Tibet issue going forward.


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