The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened levels of global resentment towards the Chinese government. Relations between the United States and China continue to sour rapidly, and both of the world’s most powerful countries have made incessant diatribes against each other that have fueled coronavirus conspiracy theories on either side.
However, it is the United States that seems to have executed the latest strike. Earlier last week, U.S. Congressman Scott Perry introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that aims to directly challenge Chinese claims over Tibet. Named H.R. 6948, the bill recognizes Tibet “as a separate, independent country, and for other purposes,” and would authorize President Donald Trump to acknowledge the region as such. Such a position, should the bill pass through both chambers of Congress, would almost certainly create ripple effects throughout the international community.
Picture Credit: freetibet.org
To understand the magnitude of this bill, it is important to briefly examine the history of Tibet by going back a century. Tibet declared independence after the collapse of China’s Qing dynasty in 1912, after which the region essentially became a de facto independent state for the next few decades. Yet in 1950, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China, under the command of Mao Zedong, seized control over the region after entering the Tibetan area of Chamdo. The invasion was followed by the signing of the Seventeen Point Agreement in 1951, agreed upon by representatives of the 14th Dalai Lama and of the Central People’s Government of China, which affirmed Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. In 1959, an uprising in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa ultimately led the Dalai Lama to flee Tibet for India, along with tens of thousands of fellow Tibetans.
Quite a lot has happened over the last six decades. Aside from Tibetans repeatedly claiming that they were forcibly coerced to sign the 1951 agreement, China has been accused of carrying out large scale human rights violations in Tibet, as well as manually altering the ethnic composition of the region by facilitating a massive transfer of Han Chinese civilians. Educational institutions have prioritized Mandarin over Tibetan as the primary mode of instruction and Tibetan Buddhist services are closely regulated by the state, signifying a gradual and worrisome erosion of Tibetan culture.
The introduction of H.R. 6948 indicates that the United States is willing to break long-held diplomatic norms vis-à-vis China. From 1959 and until now, the U.S. had never entertained the thought of declaring Tibet as an independent entity. Furthermore, the timing of this bill is no coincidence; last week also saw U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declare that Hong Kong shall no longer be autonomous from China, thus stripping the financial hub of its special status under U.S. law. Such decisive moves appear primed to exacerbate straining relations between both superpowers and usher in a new period of uncertainty in the battle for global hegemony.
Analyzing the trajectory of the Sino-American relationship over the last century may explain the rationale behind the U.S.’s current positionings. Decades of relatively mild U.S. diplomacy in China throughout the second half of the 20th century consisted of largely unsuccessful efforts to persuade the latter to halt its controversial transgressions. Throughout numerous past presidential administrations, the U.S. has, on several occasions, condemned infringements occurring within Chinese borders. And if these latest actions are what it may take to pressurize China to -- at the very least -- grant more autonomy that Tibetans across the world have so desperately coveted, then so be it.
Furthermore, the United States is doing here what India should have done 70 years ago. At the time, India had significant international support, as most of the world opinion was strongly against Chinese aggression in Tibet. Consider the following quote, published by The Economist, just months after the PLA invasion in 1950.
Having maintained complete independence of China since 1912, Tibet has a strong claim to be regarded as an independent state. But it is for India to take a lead in this matter. If India decides to support independence of Tibet as a buffer state between itself and China, Britain and the U.S.A. will do well to extend formal diplomatic recognition to it.
Despite warnings from then-Indian Deputy Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru proceeded to place great trust in the India-China relationship by adopting the slogan, Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai (India and China are brothers), and even pushed for China’s case of a permanent seat at the United Nations. This would become one of Nehru’s infamous diplomatic blunders, as it effectively allowed the Chinese to remove the strategic Himalayan buffer that Tibet once was, and convert it into an advantageous bulwark against India.
On the flip side, little has changed since the above quotation as it specifically pertains to the Indo-American relationship. Both India and the U.S. enjoy close strategic and military ties, and one can argue that thanks to China’s growing global clout, they have been brought closer today than ever before. The two countries already share vested interests in the Indo-Pacific, teaming up with Japan, Australia, and other nations to counter Chinese military expansion in the region. India has also repeatedly rejected China’s Belt and Road Initiative, backed by the U.S.
Ironically, former Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping famously spoke to the UN General Assembly in 1974, about what the world should do in the event of a belligerent and exploitative China.
If one day China should change her colour and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression and exploitation, the people of the world should identify her as social-imperialism, expose it, oppose it, and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.
The hypothetical scenario that Deng outlined certainly seems to have materialized today. Whether or not the quote represents mere bombastic rhetoric, these words were said out loud and carry significant weight coming from one of the most powerful leaders of the 20th century.
Hence, exerting significant international influence on Beijing will necessitate a domino effect initiated by the United States’ most recent moves. Simply put, more and more countries will need to speak out against Chinese actions in Tibet and elsewhere, sans fear of retaliation.
Many nations have long been hesitant to stand up to China, in fear of economic threats that the Chinese government has routinely thrown their way. But with the US -- still the largest economy in the world -- seemingly leading the way, this may be the best opportunity that India and other nations have to join forces and reject Chinese infractions in Asia and globally. At the same time, the US and other influential countries that will hopefully follow suit, must guarantee economic protection to those who are at the receiving end of China’s ultimatums.
As Sino-American relations continue to deteriorate, the United States will likely look to apply more pressure on China going forward. Bills such as H.R. 6948 are merely the beginning of what appears to be a new era of aggressive American diplomatic actions against China. However, it is equally important for other nations to adopt similar positions to the U.S., if there is any hope of having China rectify its wrongdoings in Tibet and beyond.
(Abhinav Seetharaman is the current Princeton-in-Asia Fellow at the Milken Institute in Singapore. He is a graduate of Columbia University, from where he obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees).