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Did the US Just Abandon Tibet?

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Trans-Pacific View

Did the US Just Abandon Tibet?

A brief history of U.S. Tibet policy — and how Trump just turned everything upside down.

Did the US Just Abandon Tibet?

Former U.S. President Barack Obama meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2014.

Credit: Official White House photo by Pete Souza

Reversing its stand on Tibet policy and giving a huge jolt to the Tibetan aspirations, the Trump administration recently took a step away from precedent by proposing zero aid to the Tibetans in 2018. This move points to both the changing internal politics of the United States, especially after Trump’s election, and also the new geopolitics and emerging world order, which is overshadowed by the People’s Republic of China.

The U.S. “Tibetan Policy Act of 2002” clearly states that it is intended to “support the aspirations of the Tibetan people to safeguard their distinct identity,” including by supporting “projects designed … to raise the standard of living for the Tibetan people and assist Tibetans to become self-sufficient.” This act, a major piece of Tibet legislation, was enacted as law by President George W. Bush on September 30, 2002, as part of the U.S. Foreign Relations Authorizations Act.

Since the second half of the 20th century, the “Tibet Question” remained an important factor in the US-China relationship. The Tibet agenda of the United States was tactically inspired by a dual policy encompassing both a strategic and a pragmatic aspect. Strategically, the United States has consistently and explicitly supported the Chinese position that Tibet is a part of China. But at pragmatic level, Washington has been opportunistic in its dealing with Tibet and has been prone to wide fluctuations: the provision of financial and military aid to Tibetan guerrilla forces in the 1950s and ’60s; neglect and almost no official contact in the ’70s and ’80s; the enactment of the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002; and most recently the Trump administration proposal to withdraw all monetary assistance to the Tibetan community.

In 1942, the United States made its first contact with Tibet. The Roosevelt administration, after several efforts, finally succeeded in seeking permission to enter Tibet with the help of the British envoy in Lhasa with the explicit desire to build roads and an airfield in the region and to seek moral support against the Axis. During that period, China was under the rule of the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) and till that time it had exercised no authority in Tibet. Tibet was de facto an independent state and controlled not only its internal affairs but also its territorial defense and foreign relations.

However, the United States, in a 1943 policy statement about Tibet, had very clearly acknowledged Chinese suzerainty over Tibet, a fact which was not made known to the Lhasa government. The statement read:

For its part, the government of the United State has borne in mind the fact that the Chinese Government has long claimed suzerainty over Tibet and that Chinese constitution lists Tibet among areas constituting the territory of the Republic of China. This government has at no time raised question regarding either of these claims.  

Another major turn of events came in 1948, when the Tibetan government sent an official trade delegation to the United States. At first, the delegation was ostensibly denied a formal meeting with U.S. officials for strategic reasons. However, after lots of wrangling, the delegation finally was allowed to meet the secretary of the state, but only when the delegation was accompanied by the Chinese ambassador.

The very next year the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi advised the State Department to do a review of U.S. policy toward Tibet. The embassy suggested that, in case the Communist Party of China (CPC) took over Beijing, the United States should be prepared to treat Tibet as an independent country. The embassy had underlined the usefulness of keeping Tibet friendly to the United States and other Western countries. In 1949, the CPC indeed successfully captured power and an apprehensive Lhasa government turned toward the United States for help. The request was immediately turned down. This fluctuating attitude of the United States toward Tibet pushed Lhasa to sign the “17 Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” with Beijing. This was the first document which formally recognized Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.

In 1951, Washington communicated a series of messages to the Tibetan leader, asking the Dalai Lama to leave Tibet and disavow the 17 point agreement. In return, the United States agreed to take a stand against communist aggression and also assured Tibetan leaders that it would officially adopt the position that the Dalai Lama is the “head of an autonomous Tibet” and support his “return to Tibet at the earliest practicable moment as the head of an autonomous and non-communist country.” But from the lessons learned in the past, the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s political and religious leader, was not very much convinced by the U.S. assurance and decided to stay in Lhasa for several more years.

In 1956, a series of revolts broke out in areas inhabited by ethnic Tibetans in western China, and the United States seized the opportunity to get involved in the situation. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) started helping the rebels by providing training and weapons. As the situation further worsened, Lhasa became epicenter of the rebel activities. It led to the exile of the Dalai Lama, who sought political asylum in India — meaning that in 1959, the Dalai Lama had done what United States had unsuccessfully tried to persuade him to do in 1950-51.

In the coming years, the United States consistently restricted the exile government’s moves to raise the Tibet issue on international platforms and pressured it to make Tibet’s case a matter of human right violations rather than a matter of “independence” and “sovereignty.”  It was due to this pressure that the Dalai Lama had to change tone on the Tibet issue and settle for the demand of autonomous status under the Chinese regime.

According to Tibet scholar Melvin Goldstein, the Strasbourg proposal of 1984, under which the Dalai Lama sought not independence but autonomy for Tibet, was “well received” by the world community, solidifying the Dalai Lama’s reputation as a leader who was reasonable and seeking a compromise solution. This change of stance, and the global approval that followed, not only earned the Dalai Lama the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 but also made the Tibet question a part of the domestic and international politics of United States. The Tibetan Policy Act of 2002 carried forward the old tradition and reinstated the importance of Tibet question as a crucial factor in the U.S.-China strategic relationship.

But Trump’s recent decision on Tibet turns the whole situation upside down. Does this mark a dead end of the United States’ long-held Tibet agenda? Is this change inspired by the global economic and geopolitical conditions, in which the increasing presence of China is pressuring the United States to alter its foreign policy? Or is the removal of funding just a part of Trump’s populist domestic agenda?

Since the 1940s, the United States has substantively failed to cash in on the Tibet opportunity diplomatically, in the way Russia did in the case of Mongolia in 1945 by pressuring China to accept a plebiscite that created an independent Mongolia. Today, the emerging ideological and geopolitical conflict between China and the United States has provided an opportunity for the countries in Asia to exploit their own national interests and to strengthen their geopolitical ties either with Washington or with Beijing. China’s rise on the world stage and recent outreach to South Asian countries – Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal – in the form of financial aid and trade relations is helping the region to diversify relations with other partners and thus consistently reducing the political and economic influence of the United States. In the absence of a reliable partner in South Asia, the United States is struggling to reinforce support for the international liberal order. The U.S. decision to withdraw its financial support to the Tibetan community may be seen as an initiative to normalize its relations with China under the changing geopolitical circumstances.

Pradeep Nair, PhD, is Associate Professor & Dean, at the School of Journalism, Mass Communication & New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh.

Sandeep Sharma is a Research Scholar at the Department of Mass Communication and Electronic Media, School of Journalism, Mass Communication & New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh.