The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

Nepal Is Caught Between the US and China on Tibetan Refugee Issue

A recent visit by an American official to Tibetan refugee camps in Kathmandu appears to have not gone down well with Beijing.

Nepal Is Caught Between the US and China on Tibetan Refugee Issue

Pro-Tibet protest in Pokhara, Nepal, on March 17, 2008.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Tom Booth

On May 20, U.S. Under-Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, who is also the Joe Biden administration’s Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues, Uzra Zeya, visited Nepal. Her trip followed a flurry of high-level visits by American officials since Nepal’s ratification of the $500-million Millennium Challenge Compact, in February 2022.

During her visit, Zeya met with high-level officials, including Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. However, it was her visit to two Tibetan refugee camps in Kathmandu that caught the most media attention.

Enroute to Nepal, Zeya stopped in India, where she met with the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. Days before she embarked on her South Asian tour, the president of the Tibetan government-in-exile Penpa Tsering had toured the U.S.

Nepali officials feigned ignorance of Zeya’s meeting with the Tibetan refugees. The foreign ministry spokesperson said the government was “not aware” of the meetings. Yet, there were reports that the government was cognizant of this.

Either way, it showed that Nepal was either clueless about a foreign official’s activities during her visit and that the official did not feel the need to inform her hosts of her plans, or that she went ahead with the meetings despite Nepal’s reservations.

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Even if Nepal was “not aware” of Zeya’s visit to the Tibetan camps, China watched it carefully.

A participant at the 14th Nepal-China Bilateral Consultative Mechanism held on May 25 said that China indirectly expressed reservations about Zeya’s visit to the Tibetan refugee camps. Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi had met Nepali Home Minister Bal Krishna Khand ahead of Zeya’s visit to Nepal. It is likely that Hou would have wanted the Nepali government to ensure control over Tibetan refugees’ activities during Zeya’s visit.

Chinese apprehensions over U.S. engagement of Tibetans are not without reason. In 1958, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began a covert operation of support to the Khampa uprising. While India provided intelligence support for the Kham rebels fighting the People’s Liberation Army, the CIA trained the guerrillas and provided them with arms and financial support. The CIA used Nepali territory to support the Khampa operations. The operation ended after Nepal mobilized its Army against the Khampa.

Following the Tibetan uprising in 1959, thousands of Tibetans fled their homeland. Many fled to Nepal or via Nepal to India. The trickle into Nepal has continued since then. Currently, Nepal hosts around 20,000 Tibetan refugees who live in 12 designated camps in Kathmandu and Pokhara.

Tibet, along with Taiwan and Tiananmen, comprise the critical “3Ts” for China. Beijing considers the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile to be separatists. It views Tibetan issues through the lens of territorial integrity, sovereignty, and maintenance of the Chinese Communist Party’s control over the region. China, therefore, considers other countries’ engagement with Tibetan refugees as interference in its internal affairs.

Meanwhile, Western countries and some international non-government organizations (INGOs) tend to view the Tibetan issue through the lens of human rights. USAID, for instance, provides direct financial support to the refugees. It is concerned over Nepal’s strict surveillance of Tibetan refugees, restrictions on their assembly and free expression of speech. The West and INGOs allude that Nepal’s response to Tibetans is the result of increasing Chinese influence over the government.

Nepal is caught between the U.S. and China and their competing narratives, and has acted to heed issues of concern they have raised.

On the one hand, Nepal has increased surveillance of the Tibetan refugees. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) since 2008, Nepal has signed intelligence-sharing agreements with China, operationalized border security cooperation, partially enforced a ban on Tibetan public demonstrations, and deployed armed police in Tibetan neighborhoods on politically sensitive dates. It reports that Nepal has sent back some Tibetans caught near the Sino-Nepali border in recent times, despite the risk to their lives. Additionally, since 1990, it has refused to recognize Tibetans crossing the border illegally into Nepal as refugees. Nor does it issue them identity cards.

At the same time, Nepal has committed to protecting the rights of Tibetan refugees. In 2019, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that his Nepali counterpart had reassured him that Nepal would continue to protect the rights of the Tibetan refugees living in Nepal and their right to non-refoulement.

Observers posit that Western pressure was the primary reason for Nepal not signing the extradition treaty with China during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Kathmandu in 2018. The treaty was widely believed to be targeted at Tibetan refugees.

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Nepal is caught amid a moral dilemma and geostrategic competition. It emphasizes the “one China” policy. Its Foreign Policy 2077 8.1.7 states that Nepal will not allow any activities within its territory that affect the national interests of its neighbors. However, it lacks an overarching principle in its policy vis-à-vis Tibetan refugees. As a result, it has taken ad hoc measures. Nepal’s policy and statements have changed based on whom it is dealing with.

Consequently, Nepal has not been able to address the concerns of China or the U.S.

It has faced relentless U.S. pressure, and global humiliation on account of an official meeting refugees despite Nepal’s reservations. On the other, China shows inadequate confidence in Nepal’s ability to “control” the activities of the Tibetan refugees. It has limited the movement of people and goods across the Tatopani crossing on the Sino-Nepal border in an apparent show of displeasure.

Amidst all this, it is the refugees in Nepal who bear the brunt of the geopolitical tussle. They have suffered from a lack of access to basic rights such as education and employment because they have not been issued identity cards. China wants Nepal to maintain effective control over their activities, whereas the U.S. wants to engage refugees partially to get back at China.

The issue will test Nepal’s diplomatic skills. As Sino-American tensions increase, Nepal will find that the balancing line is increasingly thin and more tenuous. If the present is the prologue, Nepal is likely to be a pawn in the great geopolitical game without a handle on the events, and Tibetan refugees will be the ones to suffer.