A More Ambitious Approach

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Last month a U.S. congressional delegation led by Representative Nancy Pelosi visited Tibet on what appeared to be a last minute extension of planned trip to China. For Chinese officials, however, it was undoubtedly the product of assiduous preparation.

China’s approach to Tibet—both inside and on the international stage—is tough and uncompromising. Most official requests to visit are denied. When granted, there is a reason. “What they wanted us to see was housing. And we did,” Pelosi noted in a press conference following the group’s return to the United States. “Did we see families? I’m not sure.”

Pelosi is far from the “political pilgrim” unable to distinguish between reality and propaganda that Paul Hollander described in his book of the same name. She is the undisputed heroine of an earlier era of congressional leadership on human rights in Tibet and China in the 1990s. However, in light of what we know about conditions in Tibet, and the way Beijing controls access for propaganda purposes, the congressional delegation’s visit is probably not the “giant step forward” she hopes. In any case, it must not be allowed to distract from the development of a broad, substantive, and ambitious strategy for U.S. policy on Tibet.

Chinese leaders have their own strategy, made and executed at the highest levels, most recently at a conclave in August presided over by General Secretary Xi Jinping. They are aimed at retaining control domestically and gaining acceptance abroad of Beijing’s policies toward Tibet, including by delegitimizing the Dalai Lama. While the West likes to imagine that China is no longer truly communist, its Tibet policies remain underpinned by Marxist-Leninist tenets on religion and ethnic minorities. (Of course, Tibetans only became a “minority” after the Chinese invasion.)

American policy meanwhile is focused narrowly on preserving Tibetan religion and culture and promoting “dialogue” between China and the Dalai Lama’s representatives. (There have been no talks between them since 2010.) Meanwhile, U.S. policymakers have not addressed other important developments that indicate Tibet’s strategic importance.

In 2011, Tibetans in exile completed the democratization of the government based in Dharamsala, India, and the Dalai Lama transferred his political authority to an elected Prime Minister. This deserves a greater degree of incorporation into U.S. policy.

To do this, the United States would not need to change its position on Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, no matter how historically ill founded it is. Such a position would bring Tibet policy into line with policy toward Taiwan and Hong Kong, where the United States also supports democracy as both the right of the people and the outcome that best serves U.S. interests. The U.S. position on Taiwan was adapted over time as Taiwan itself democratized. Washington now considers the consent of the people on Taiwan as a prerequisite for U.S. support for the merger with the mainland. Greater emphasis on democracy for Tibet would help China’s beleaguered dissidents, including the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and New Citizens Movement leader Xu Zhiyong, who have also criticized their government’s policies on Tibet.

The United States should also draw the line at further aggression by China on matters related to Tibet. PLA incursions across the former Tibetan border with India have increased in recent years. Chinese leaders claim considerable areas of India as “Southern Tibet.” India’s military preparedness lags far behind that of China’s, but on the Indian side are large Indian Tibetan Buddhist communities and historic religious sites, one of which, the monastery at Tawang, might play a role in the selection of the next Dalai Lama. China is also disrupting Nepal’s historic role as a haven and way station for Tibetan refugees.

The United States can go much further in fulfilling the current mandate of U.S. law on preserving Tibet’s unique religion and culture. China plans to install the next Dalai Lama according to “guidelines” on reincarnation. The Dalai Lama has unequivocally rejected a Chinese role in the selection of his successor. He explained how, consistent with Buddhist precepts, the next Dalai Lama may be found outside Tibet, and that some other figures may play a role in the period between the identification of the reincarnation in a young boy and his age of majority. As a matter of religious freedom, the United States and other democratic governments should accept the Dalai Lama’s plan and reject a Communist-imposed Dalai Lama. Among other things, letting Tibetans know the world supports them on this vital matter of identity might help to lessen unrest in Tibet.

Even as Pelosi and her congressional colleagues were in Tibet, China was spinning the visit in party-controlled media, claiming she had praised Chinese rule. That was predictable. Now that they have returned to the United States, they have the opportunity to update U.S. Tibet policy by broadening its strategic and moral objectives.

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