• header EFSAS
  • header EFSAS

EFSAS Commentary

Despite shrill Chinese warnings, a bipartisan US delegation visits Dharamshala and raises the pitch on the Tibet issue


A bipartisan group of United States (US) lawmakers led by Congressman Michael McCaul and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi arrived in Dharamshala, India, on 18 June for a two-day visit to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and senior representatives of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile — also known as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). The Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has made Dharamshala his headquarters since fleeing from Tibet after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. Crowds of Tibetans gathered at the airport to greet the visiting delegation. The group included schoolchildren with banners and dozens of monks and nuns. The visit comes amidst expectations that US President Joe Biden will soon sign legislation called ‘Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Dispute Act’, also called the Resolve Tibet Act, which was passed by the US Congress last week. This Act is expected to raise the international pitch on the Tibet issue substantially, and the grave consternation this has led to in Beijing can be gauged by the sharp statements that the Chinese government has made against both the delegation’s visit and the Resolve Tibet Act.

Upon the delegation’s arrival at the Kangra Airport in Dharamshala, McCaul, a Republican representative from Texas who also chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said “It is an honor to be standing in your temple of democracy”. He continued, “We are very excited to see His Holiness tomorrow to talk about many things, including the Bill we just passed out of Congress that basically says the United States of America stands with the people of Tibet”. Pelosi concurred, saying “It’s very exciting to be here”.

After their meeting with the Dalai Lama at his monastery on 19 June, the group of seven lawmakers addressed hundreds who had gathered just outside the 88-year-old’s residence, waving American and Tibetan flags. They told the expectant gathering that a key focus of their visit was to underscore the Resolve Tibet Act, which aims to encourage dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Chinese officials with the hope of finding a peaceful resolution between Tibet and Beijing. The bill should now be sent to the White House for President Joe Biden to sign into law. A copy of the bill was handed over to the Dalai Lama by the US delegation.

McCaul said at the public reception after the meeting that Beijing has attempted to insert itself into choosing the successor of the Dalai Lama, but “We will not let that happen”. He added, “It is still my hope that one day the Dalai Lama and his people will return to Tibet in peace”. Reuters, meanwhile, informed that the Dalai Lama, who has battled health problems for years, is set to fly to the US this week for medical treatment. The question of the Dalai Lama’s successor has been a thorny issue, which analysts say highlights the power and influence of the role, fuelling Beijing’s tussle to control it. Tibetan tradition holds that the Dalai Lama is reincarnated after his death, and the current leader has said his successor may be found in India. Beijing has said the tradition must continue, but it’s officially atheist Communist leaders have the right to approve the successor, as a legacy inherited from China's emperors.

McCaul disclosed, to loud cheers, that “Just this week our delegation received a letter from the Chinese Communist Party, warning us not to come here… but we did not let the CCP intimidate us for we are here today”. He also underlined that the Resolve Tibet Act reaffirmed American support for the Tibetan right to self-determination, adding that “The Tibetan people possess a distinct religion, culture and historic identity and they should have a say in their own future. You should be able to freely practice your religion”. When asked if Biden would sign the Bill into law soon, McCaul responded emphatically – “Yes, he will, he will”.

Pelosi said the Act was “a message to the Chinese government that we have clarity in our thinking and our understanding of this issue of the freedom of Tibet”. Although Washington recognizes Tibet as a part of China, the Resolve Tibet Act appears to question that position. Analysts believe that this change of outlook would be a major shock to Beijing, one that may encourage a host of similar-thinking democracies to join suit.

Pelosi also took direct aim at Chinese President Xi Jinping, asserting that the Dalai Lama’s legacy will live forever despite Beijing’s efforts to erase Tibetan culture. She said, “The Dalai Lama with his message of knowledge, tradition, compassion, purity of soul and love, he will live a long time and his legacy will live forever. But you, President of China, you will be gone and nobody will give you credit for anything”.

Penpa Tsering, the democratically elected Sikyong (political leader) of the exiled CTA, told Reuters in an interview that the US Congressional approval of the Resolve Tibet Act was a “significant breakthrough” that he believed would put pressure on Beijing to negotiate, and could also serve as a precedent for other nations to adopt policies similar to Washington’s. Pointing out that the Dalai Lama had always sought “autonomy or a middle way, not independence” for Tibet, he added that “This will give us a tool to work with other governments”. Tenzin Lekshay, spokesperson of the CTA, asserted that “Over the last two years, the Resolve Tibet Bill was passed … and it is now on the desk of President Biden, so that will be a game changer”.

Advocacy group International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) said on 12 June, after the House of Representatives had voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Resolve Tibet Act that day, that the Act will strengthen US efforts to push the Chinese government to resolve the longstanding Tibet-China dispute through dialogue with Tibetan leaders and arm the State Department’s Special Coordinator for Tibet office with more tools to combat the CCP’s disinformation on Tibet. As per the act, “United States public diplomacy efforts should counter disinformation about Tibet from the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party, including disinformation about the history of Tibet, the Tibetan people, and Tibetan institutions including that of the Dalai Lama”. According to the website of the US House’s Foreign Affairs Committee, the Act seeks to empower officials of the US State Department to “actively and directly counter” disinformation about Tibet from China’s government, as well as to reject “false claims that Tibet has been part of China since ‘ancient times’”.

Explaining what the Resolve Tibet Act does, the ICT said that it confirms that “it is US policy that the dispute between Tibet and China remains unresolved in accordance with international law”. It also “Rejects as ‘inaccurate’ China’s false claims that Tibet has been part of China since ‘ancient times’”. Importantly, it “Affirms the State Department’s responsibility to coordinate with other governments in multilateral efforts toward the goal of a negotiated agreement on Tibet”, and it “Encourages China’s government to address the aspirations of the Tibetan people regarding their distinct historical, cultural, religious and linguistic identity”.

ICT President Tencho Gyatso said as voting concluded that “This latest indication of American support of Tibet is a source of hope and encouragement to the Tibetan people, who have been nonviolently struggling against the Chinese government for more than six decades for human rights and democratic freedoms… The Resolve Tibet Act is a strong message to China that the Tibet issue has to be resolved through negotiation instead of an assault on Tibet’s unique and ancient civilization".

Detailing the Act, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported earlier that it refuted the Chinese government’s claim that Tibet had been part of China since ancient times, and would make it formal US policy that the dispute over Tibet’s status is unresolved. It would also make it US policy that “Tibet” refers not only to the Tibet autonomous region as defined by the Chinese government, but also to Tibetan areas of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. In its talks with China between 2002 and 2010, the Tibetan side pitched genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people in line with the middle-way policy as proposed by the Dalai Lama, who has said he does not seek political independence for Tibet but seeks autonomy for all Tibetan areas which included Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces besides the current official Tibet Autonomous Region, a truncated version of Tibet before it was annexed by China.

After the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Act, Representative Jim McGovern said, “Let the overwhelming passage of our strong, bipartisan bill be a clear message to the Tibetan people: America stands with you on the side of human dignity, and we support you in your quest to secure the basic rights to which you are entitled under international law. The People’s Republic of China has systematically denied Tibetans the right to self-determination and continues to deliberately erase Tibetan religion, culture, and language. The ongoing oppression of the Tibetan people is a grave tragedy, and our bill provides further tools that empower both America and the international community to stand up for justice and peace”.

Senator Todd Young commented that “Our bipartisan bill will refresh U.S. policy towards Tibet and push for negotiations that advance freedom for the Tibetan people and a peaceful resolution to the CCP’s conflict with the Dalai Lama. Congressional passage of this legislation further demonstrates America’s resolve that the CCP’s status quo – both in Tibet and elsewhere – is not acceptable. I look forward to this important effort becoming law and working with my colleagues and the Administration to ensure swift and effective implementation”.

China appears to be rattled by this uptick in US involvement with the Tibetan cause. It has never taken kindly to international interest in Tibet, but the publicly articulated shift in US position to now see Tibet’s status as “unresolved” has taken the matter to a different level altogether. Its responses to these recent developments have ranged between angry, incredulous, and threatening. China’s narrative about its control over Tibet has been that it has been part of China since ancient times. A Chinese spokesperson reiterated this claim when he said that “Tibet related affairs are purely China’s internal affairs that brook no external interference. No one and no force should ever attempt to destabilise Tibet to contain and suppress China. Such attempts will never succeed. We urge the US side to adhere to its commitments of recognising Xizang (the Chinese name for Tibet) as part of China and not supporting ‘Xizang independence’. The US must not sign the bill into law. China will take resolute measures to firmly defend its sovereignty, security and development interests”.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian on 18 June claimed that “Tibet now enjoys a tranquil and harmonious society, positive economic growth, has robust safeguards on people’s welfare and has opened up new grounds for long-term stability and high-quality development”. Lin expressed deep displeasure over the visit of the US lawmakers to Dharamshala, and said China was “gravely concerned”. He added, “It’s known by all that the 14th Dalai Lama is not a purely religious figure, but a political exile engaged in anti-China separatist activities under the cloak of religion We urge the US to fully recognize the anti-China and separatist nature of the Dalai clique, abide by its commitments on Tibet-related issues, refrain from any form of contact with it, and stop sending erroneous messages”.

It has long been acknowledged that China’s historical claims over Tibet are not in sync with what historical records say, and its treatment of Tibetans has indeed been questionable, but what could now be a game-changer for the Tibetan cause is the US’ publicly articulated classification of Tibet’s status as “unresolved”, and the global backing that this fresh policy is now likely to garner.