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14.01.2022 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Why is the US Stirring Up Tibet as an ‘Issue’?


More than a mere territorial and ethnic question, Tibet, for the US, is a geo-political opportunity to up the ante against China in Asia and the Indo-Pacific region. The US decision to appoint a ‘special envoy’ for Tibetan ‘issue’ comes at a time when the US’ anti-China rhetoric has persistently failed to drive a wave of countries weaning away from Beijing and rushing towards Washington for making new pacts for protection from an “aggressive” and “autocratic” Beijing. Perhaps, as policy makers seem to have calculated in Washington, these countries need a bit of shake up; hence, the decision to stir up trouble around Tibet as an addition to the trouble the US has already been stirring around Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang as a means to demonise and delegitimise China’s rise to a global power status, a status that directly – and profoundly – challenges the US hegemony in the post Second World War international order. The US special envoy for Tibet, Uzra Zeya, will accordingly be paying special attention to “advance the human rights of Tibetans; help preserve their distinct religious, linguistic, and cultural identity; address their humanitarian needs, including those of Tibetan diaspora communities …and promote dialogue, without preconditions, between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Dalai Lama.”

The job description contains nothing but a prescription that many US policy makers and presidents have used previously to generate controversies against their rivals. What, however, is not included in this job description is how the convey will be using the Tibetan issue to specially prevent regional states, such as India, from cosying too much up to Beijing.

While India-China relations have been tense following last year border clashes, the region has remained relatively calm as both Beijing and New Delhi have avoided establishing ‘new facts’ on the ground around Ladakh region. Many in Washington are sensing that a normalisation between Beijing and New Delhi could weaken various US geo-political projects, including the Biden administration’s persistent efforts at weaponizing the QUAD – an anti-China group that includes the US, Australia, Japan and India.

The relative calm on the India-China border has also allowed some cross-regional diplomacy to go forward. As Russian Presidential Aide Yury Ushakov revealed recently, a Russia-China-India summit could take place in near future. The news comes against the backdrop of Russian president’s visit to New Delhi in December, 2021, where he did discuss with the Indian authorities prospects of reviving India-China dialogue through the Shanghai Coopertaion Organisation (SCO). On December 22, China’s foreign minister said that China and India have “maintained dialogue through diplomatic and military channels, and effectively managed and controlled frictions in certain border areas, under a shared commitment to improving and developing the bilateral relations.”

This cosying up has had some effect on India-China ties. As a matter of fact, India was the only QUAD country to skip the recently held G7+Five Eyes+ EU meeting in England, which “condemned” recently held Legislative Council elections in Hong Kong.

India, therefore, needed a message. And, the message given through the recent appointment is that the Indian authorities can rely on US support in their big strategic game against China. Besides the possibility of New Delhi not actually buying the US offer of support, it remains that the US problems vis-à-vis gaining enough support against China from within the region are not confined to India only.

As it stands, the US push for inciting anti-China policies in Southeast Asia, too, have failed to gain any traction. For instance, despite Washington’s so-called “hyper diplomacy” in Southeast Asia, Thailand – which has an alliance treaty with the US – is yet to host a single cabinet-level official from the Biden administration. Thailand was also noticeably absent among invitees to the anti-China “Summit for Democracy” in Washington. While some Southeast Asian states – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore – have recieved US officials, including the US Vice President, the Biden administration has still not been able to develop any major trade and economic framework to counter China’s economic gains. So, while Washington has ambitions for Southeast Asia, it does not have the right tools.

In this context, the difficulties the Biden administration is facing add to the necessity of flaring up new fires in the region to make these states in South and Southeast Asia cling to the US without requiring Washington to offer any concrete trade treaty to counter-balance China’s BRI.

This strategy has been in the making for quite some time, which means the US turn to Tibet is not an all of a sudden event. In fact, the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy announced in 2019 pays special attention to Tibet alongside other issues – Hong Kong, Xinjiang/Uighur and Taiwan – the US has been deliberately raising. To quote the Indo-Pacific strategy,

“We have called on the PRC publicly to halt its brutal repression of Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and members of other Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang. We urge that the selection of religious leaders by the Tibetan community be free of interference by the Chinese Communist Party.”

The publication of this report was followed by a bill the US Congress passed in December 2020 “to upgrade US support for Tibetans in key areas, including sanctioning Chinese officials if they try to appoint the next Dalai Lama.” The bill offers a package of US intervention in Tibet. To quote the bill,

“The President shall provide funds to nongovernmental organizations to support sustainable development, cultural and historical preservation, health care, education, and environmental sustainability projects for Tibetan communities in Tibet.”

The US focus on Tibet, therefore, is a wholesale package of intervention and trouble that it intends to create as a means to project China as an “autocrat” and, thus, generate enough anti-China hysteria in the world more generally and in Asia more specifically for the US to project itself as benign democrat focused on ‘helping’ suppressed communities and nations.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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