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Morality Versus Strategy in U.S. Tibet Policy

WASHINGTON, May 4 2012 (IPS) - On Friday, a panel discussion in Washington called on the U.S. government to stop treating the question of Tibetan human and civil rights violations as a moral issue.

Instead, they urged the government to focus on Tibet as a strategic issue, and one of central importance to the United States.

“Tibet has been turned into a moral issue and been pushed to the sidelines,” said Brahma Chellaney, an analyst at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. “We need to take it back to centre stage and recognise that Tibet is tied to Asian and international security.”

“We can’t make progress if we treat Tibet as a moral rather than a strategic issue,” agreed Michael J. Green, an adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington.

The remarks came during a panel discussion on Capitol Hill organised by the Foreign Policy Initiative, a neoconservative think tank.

According to Green, the administration of President Barack Obama sees Tibet only through a moral lens, and thus is prone to making decisions in deference to the bilateral relationship with China.

He noted his disappointment in President Obama’s public decision, in 2009, to delay meeting with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, and suggested that the decision had long-term implications for how other governments felt about dealing with Chinese anger over Tibet-related issues.

“When asked to meet with the Dalai Lama, the three previous U.S. presidents agreed to do so – that was the right direction,” Green said. “After Obama’s decision, however, the European Union countries started to get ‘picked apart’ by China.”

Green pointed to the examples of Denmark, France and Australia, where Chinese diplomatic bullying in the aftermath of President Obama’s decision succeeded in getting those governments to make various concessions to Beijing on meeting with the Dalai Lama.

“I strongly suspect that the U.S. decision had a ripple effect,” Green said.

Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama’s special envoy and a long-time mediator between the Chinese and the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, warned governments not to “shy away from discussing Tibet”.

“We need to see more visible engagement by world leaders,” he said.

In the past, Gyari noted, “there has been a lot of people expressing their sympathy” for the Tibet cause. “But Tibet has rarely been seen as relevant for those in Washington.”

With both India and China playing such central roles in current U.S. foreign policy, the panellists each pointed out that Tibet constitutes a natural – and critical – component of both trilateral and bilateral talks between those three countries.

“For India and the U.S., no issue constitutes more shared interest than Tibet,” Lalit Mansingh, an ambassador and former foreign secretary of India, said at the panel discussion. “Tibet must be acknowledged as an area for discussion in any India-U.S. talks.”

According to analysis put forth by the panellists, the centrality of Tibet in security-related discussions could grow substantially under certain contingencies.

“We can’t rule out that Tibet will be the next Asian battlefield,” Mansingh warned. “There is a growing sense that relations between India and China are not getting better.”

For the Indian government, Mansingh said, of the seven most pressing issues of concern between India and China, five are in Tibet.

“First and foremost are territorial disputes,” he said. “Currently, there are 4,000-plus kilometres of unsettled border issues, on which there are no solutions in sight. These negotiations have been going on for 60 years and are currently going nowhere. That’s worrying.”

According to Chellaney, such tensions could be exacerbated by what some suggest is increasing belligerency on the part of the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In the future, he suggests, the military could be calling more of the shots.

“PLA generals have been increasingly public about their own role,” Chellaney said, pointing to a recent series of articles in the press written by serving army officers “calling for discipline” on the part of the ruling Communist Party of China “and alluding to the military’s role in ensuring that discipline”.

Activists and scholars have expressed guarded enthusiasm at the prospect of any greater U.S. strategic engagement on the Tibet issue. But they caution that a balance would need to be struck between a focus on strategic and human rights priorities.

“The promotion of human rights must be an essential component of all U.S. diplomatic relations with China,” Kate Woznow, deputy director of Students for a Free Tibet, told IPS. “Indeed, the Chen Guangcheng case has elevated human rights to the centre of strategic and economic discussions.”

Likewise, notes Mary Beth Markey, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, “As this week shows, human rights have a prominent place in the U.S.-Chinese relationship. We don’t see a trade-off between human rights and economic and security issues – they are intertwined.”

If there are strategic issues at play for the U.S., many stem from the human rights issue, Woznow says. “If we can’t trust China on these basic issues – of rule of law, of guaranteeing the rights of the individual – how can we trust them to deal with larger international agreements?”

Students for a Free Tibet would urge the U.S. administration to bring together complementary issues of human rights and strategic concern.

“We would like to see the Obama administration take this opportunity to say to Beijing, ‘Until you address the Tibet situation, it will continue to be an impediment to our overall relationship – political and economic,” Woznow says.

Still, many see little hope of any broad change in U.S. policy in the immediate future. “The reality is also that Tibet is not of strategic importance to the U.S.,” says Thierry Dodin, the director of TibetInfoNet.

“And at the end of the day, we haven’t seen the U.S. engage significantly in anything that has no strategic meaning for them. I don’t see that changing for the time being.”

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  • Wang Zhi

    As to the series of self-immolations in Tibet, some confused people think it is the fight for the “independence”. However, there is few local people who will agree with it. The one who did not value disciples’ lives would not be a good leader by all means. He just wants to please those who have strong prejudice towards China and Chinese government.

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