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Resurrecting Orphans of Cold War: Col R Hariharan

Is the US trying to revive the Tibetan autonomy issue as part of its new Cold War against China?

Image Courtesy: The Hindu

Article 29/ 2024

The Chinese dragon turns into a frenzy when other countries talk about Tibet or Tibetan identity and religion; and it breathes fire when anyone refers to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetans. The recently passed US House of Representatives bipartisan bill that questions China’s control over Tibet seems to have achieved both the reactions.

The Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Dispute Act’ is awaiting President Baiden’s signature. The Resolve Tibet Act, as it is referred to in short, seeks to promote a dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama. It also empowers State Department officials to actively and directly counter ‘disinformation’ about Tibet from the Chinese government and reject false claims that Tibet has been part of China since “ancient times.” It pushes for negotiations without preconditions between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama’s representatives.

To add to China’s agony, close on the heels of the passing of the Resolve Tibet Act, a bipartisan US congressional delegation, led by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Michael Mc Caulis visited Dharamsala, the seat of Tibetan government in exile and met with Tibetan representatives. The delegates also called upon the Dalai Lama. Mc Caulis presented the Dalai Lama with a framed copy of The Resolve Tibet Act. Tibetans gave a public felicitation to the delegates after their meeting with the Dalai Lama. Former speaker Nancy Pelosi, member of the delegation addressing the gathering said “this bill is a message to the Chinese government that we have clarity in our thinking and our understanding of this issue of the freedom of Tibet.” After Pelosi said the Dalai Lama “with his message of compassion…and love, will live a long time and his legacy will live forever”, she fired a broadside at Chinese President Xi Jinping. She said “you will be gone and nobody will give you credit for anything.”  The US delegation went on to New Delhi to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A few days ago, the Dalai Lama, aged 88, flew into New York to a warm welcome by hundreds of Tibetans. The Buddhist leader, visiting the US after 17 years, will be undergoing treatment for his knees. It is not clear whether the spiritual leader will meet any US officials during his visit.

The US delegation’s visit to Dharamsala and meeting with the Dalai Lama and their promotion of the Resolve Tibet Act has drawn global attention to  the Tibetan issue, which was almost forgotten. The publicity surrounding the Dalai Lama’s trip to the US has further infuriated Beijing. China minced no words in condemning the US Act and asked President Joe Biden not to sign it. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lin Jian told reporters “Any one or any force who attempts to destabilise Xizang (China’s official name for Tibet) to contain or suppress China will not succeed.” He called it a sovereignty issue and added “The US should not sign the bill. China will take resolute measures to defend its sovereignty, security and development interests.” Lin said Xizang was now enjoying a tranquil and harmonious society, positive economic growth and has opened up new grounds for long term stability and high-quality development.

The American move on Tibet is making China highly uncomfortable. Is America trying to resurrect the Tibet autonomy issue as part of the Grey Warfare brewing for some time to cut down President Xi’s efforts to create a Sino-centric world order?

It took the PRC three decades to bring Tibet under its full control. At the height of the Cold War, between 1950 and 1972 the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in close cooperation with the Departments of State (DoS) and Defense (DoD), conducted a comprehensive covert action campaign in support of Tibetan resistance movements fighting against Communist Chinese occupation of their homeland.  The campaign’s stated goal was “to keep the political concept of an autonomous Tibet alive within Tibet and among several foreign nations.” Its similarity to the objective of The Resolve Tibet Act must be making China nervous. During the covert action, the CIA strengthened various isolated Tibetan groups to fight against the Chinese. It trained and raised a paramilitary force of 2000 Tibetans in the border areas of Nepal.

During this period, the Dalai Lama and some 80 supporters fled to India on March 31,1959. India welcomed the spiritual leader and his supporters and offered them a home in Dharamsala. Since then, his presence across the border of Tibet acts as a beacon for Tibetans, who are slowly losing their culture and identity under Han hegemony. During the period of CIA intervention, some 87,000 Tibetans and 2,000 Chinese troops were killed. Over 100,000 Tibetans fled as refugees to India, Nepal, and Bhutan during the conflict.

Revival of the Tibetan issue by the US will revive the bitter memories of the war of liberation, probably hidden from the younger generation of Tibetans. Tibetan government in exile estimates 1.2 million Tibetans -representing one fifth of the population - died due to China’s policies. Over 6000 monasteries, temples and historic buildings were destroyed. Thousands were arrested and suffered in prisons and labour camps. Another estimate suggests that more than 456,000 Tibetans were annihilated in the active conflict period between 1956 and 1962.


In August 2020, President Xi in a speech said it is “necessary to actively guide Tibetan Buddhism to adapt to the socialist society and promote Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism. In July 2021, Xi visited Tibet for the 70th anniversary of Tibet’s peaceful liberation. He emphasized the need to Sinicize Tibetan Buddhism and strengthen Tibetans’ identification with China and its culture.

Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism is an oxymoron as without Tibetan identity, language and culture the religion will not exist. Already, young Tibetans in China are losing touch with Tibetan language and culture as Tibet is swamped by Hans. Any foreign intervention could jeopardise Xi’s Sinicization plans.

Since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China’s focus on Tibet’s border security and infrastructure has intensified. In particular, the infrastructure development of border areas with India has been taken up in a big way, perhaps to buttress his claims to Arunachal Pradesh, which China identifies as South Tibet. This includes the construction of 624 border defence villages. In the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-25), China has allocated 190 billion Yuan (about $29.3 billion) for infrastructure development in border regions. This includes civil and military infrastructure, roads, railways, expressways and airports. Already tightening of the border security measures has seen a drop in the number of Tibetans crossing the border as refugees, from 753 Tibetans in 2011 to five in 2022.

China is unlikely to respond to the revival of any talks with the Dalai Lama and his representatives. Nine rounds of dialogues were held between them from 2002 to 2010. They did not yield concrete results. China insists on talking to the Dalai Lama’s representatives and not the representatives of the Tibetan government in exile based in Dharamsala. China also wants the Dalai Lama to “fundamentally reflect on and thoroughly correct his political views.”  The Dalai Lama is not in good health and there is talk of choosing his successor in the air. The Chinese are likely to stall any American pressure to resume talks, till they choose a successor to the Dalai Lama.

 The CIA’s Tibet intervention ended in 1972 when POTUS Nixon wanted to recast US relations with China. The Dalai Lama in his 1991 autobiography Freedom in Exile has criticized the CIA for supporting the Tibetan independence movement not because they (the CIA) cared about Tibetan independence, but as part of their worldwide efforts to destabilize all communist governments. Given this background, the Tibet issue has the potential to become a talking point in the American presidential election debates in the next few months. The US is locked in the Ukraine conflict and in the South China Sea confrontation with China. It may not find the time and energy to revive the Tibetan intervention except as a potential threat to further unnerve the Chinese.

John Kenneth Knaus, one of the CIA operatives who participated in the Tibetan resistance to fight China, aptly titled his memoir Orphans of the Cold War in sympathy for the plight of Tibetans. They have not only lost their independence, but also are in danger of losing their identity.

India is in a unique position as any threat of American intervention can serve as an incentive for China to build better relations with India.Can India which has given refuge to the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan refugees do more? I hope our political leadership ponders over this and factor it in India’s China policy.

(Col. R. Hariharan, VSM (Retd.), a Military Intelligence specialist of the Indian Army. An expert on South Asia, Terrorism & Insurgency, and Distinguished Member, C3S. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of C3S.)

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