07.09.2020 Author: Vladimir Terehov

PRC President on China and Tibet


President Xi Jinping’s speech at the 7th Central Symposium on Tibet Work on August 29 (an event seemingly dedicated to some of the country’s domestic issues) included quite a noteworthy message on foreign policy stemming from two inter-connected issues: the history of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and characteristics of modern politics with a capital “P”. Both of them have been covered by the New Eastern Outlook when relevant.

It is important to point out straightaway that (at least officially and publicly) TAR is broadly viewed as a province-level part of China nowadays. Still, this has not stopped US Congress and Department of State from drawing up (on a pretty much regular basis) various documents, which either impose sanctions on or criticize the PRC over various events in TAR.

Then again, similar actions are being taken by the US with regards to other administrative regions of the PRC, each with its unique history and process of integrating with China. Some examples include the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and Hong Kong.

So all in all, some of the latest developments are part of a routine (which are not noteworthy) of the current phase of the aforementioned politics with a capital “P” that the two world powers, which continue to exchange jabs for one reason or another in the course of their global one-on-one confrontation, are at the epicenter of.

Since it is quite unlikely that the world leader (i.e. the United States) will come out of the current domestic crisis more or less unscathed, the author is more concerned about the impact of the latest events in TAR on the bilateral relationship between the PRC and its neighbor, India. In fact, a number of other experts share the author’s (purely subjective) concerns. After all, the word “Tibet” is among (even if somewhat buried) issues plaguing the aforementioned ties.

Hence, periodic (and at times quite serious) flare-ups in various parts of the (quasi)border separating the two countries are, in fact, only indicative (at a local level) of the extent of this problem.

In fact, India has officially recognized that the Tibetan Autonomous Region is a part of China. In 2005, China signed an agreement with India to resolve their dispute over a territory covering 130,000 sq km (i.e. less than 10% of TAR’s total area) in the Himalayan region. Hence, disputed parts along this border do not exceed 130,000 sq km. In fact, India’s state of Arunachal Pradesh (referred to as South Tibet in China) adjoins two thirds of it.

India does not appear to be “eying” TAR territories even covertly. In India, the issue of Tibet’s de facto loss of suzerainty in 1951, once Tibetan representatives signed the so-called 17-point agreement with the PRC “affirming China’s sovereignty over Tibet and the incorporation of Tibet” is only discussed from time to time among experts. Although there are various viewpoints on the validity of the aforementioned document from an international legal perspective, at present, the issue is but of historic significance.

For India, China’s continued military build up in Tibet since 1951, including the border regions, is a much more relevant concern these days. India has also been impacted by the consequences of incorporating Tibet (where TAR was established in 1965) into the PRC as a province. The aforementioned process was definitely not all smooth sailing. In fact, it led to the 1959 Tibetan uprising (which started with substantial outside help), during which the 14th Dalai Lama, his family and some of his government fled to India, as well as to the subsequent exodus of Tibetans from 1959 to 1960 who chose to follow their leader.

People have continued to flee and at present, the Tibetan diaspora, mostly living in India, Nepal and Bhutan, exceeds 100,000 people. In fact, the Tibetan Government in Exile is headquartered in Dharamshala, India. The 14th Dalai Lama’s residence is also in this city where he gives religious teachings and talks.

Depending on the state of the relationship between India and the PRC, the way the presence of the Tibetan Government in Exile in the former is viewed changes. At times, when relations are more or less positive, the aforementioned factor becomes more of a source of discomfort that is difficult to alleviate.

For instance, such a period started in spring 2018 when a historic (yet “informal”) summit took place in Wuhan (China) between Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. One and a half years later, during an equally historic meeting between the two leaders in the Indian town of Mamallapuram, the local police quickly detained a group of Tibetan activists for trying to stage a protest.

The aforementioned period ended by the summer of this year at the beginning of May, when yet another incident occurred in an area of the Sino-Indian border, which resulted in a deterioration of the bilateral ties to a level unseen in the past few decades. Despite several rounds of high-level talks between India and the PRC, little progress to resolve the “localized” issue has been made.

Moreover, there are indications that provocative military movements (that appeared to come to an end earlier) have restarted in conflict zones, which could result in new border clashes. Naturally, the two sides have been blaming each other for the incidents.

In the meantime, Hindustan Times reported on August 29 that the Tibetan Government in Exile (also referred to as the Central Tibetan Administration or CTA) was preparing to hold elections the following year. In fact, “the Tibetan Election Commission has announced dates for voter registration – from September 1 to October 15, 2020”.

It is highly likely that the upcoming election among the Tibetan diaspora will become a serious test for the China-India relations. But then again, chances are that voting will only be one of a number factors impacting further (quite probable) deterioration of the bilateral relations.

In such a climate (as briefly described by the author), the description of the aforementioned speech by the PRC leader was published on China’s State Council website under the title “Xi stresses building new modern socialist Tibet”.

At this point, it seems apt to note yet again that the positive impact of the central government’s giant efforts in recent decades to transform the feudal (i.e. essentially medieval) system in Tibet to a more modern one starting in 1951 is becoming visible. Buddhism has seen a revival in China after being targeted during the Cultural Revolution, with the number of temples expanding in the PRC. Incidentally, Xi Jinping himself spent his teenage years living in cave homes in Liangjiahe, a remote village.

In fact, the first Central Symposium on Tibet Work was convened in 1980 with the aim of creating “policies to boost Tibet’s economic and social development”. During the most recent session, Xi Jinping first underlined the need to fully implement the Communist Party of China’s “policies on governing Tibet for a new era” as is the custom. He then outlined the key issues to be focused on Tibet by calling “for efforts to ensure national security and enduring peace and stability, steadily improve people’s lives, maintain a good environment, solidify border defense and ensure frontier security”.

The President also stated that efforts had to be “made to build a new modern socialist Tibet that is united, prosperous, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful”. He also mentioned religion by saying that Tibetan Buddhism needed “to be guided in adapting to the socialist society” and “developed in the Chinese context”.

It is quite likely that the aforementioned statements (especially the last one) will not be readily understood among Tibetans in exile.

But the former were, of course, not the target audience of the Chinese leader’s speech abroad, and neither was PRC’s (for now) key geopolitical opponent, i.e. the United States.

In fact, the speech was aimed at its neighbor, India, the relationship with which is, for now, unfortunately deteriorating.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.