Tightening Tibet Tangle

Long before outgoing US President Donald J. Trump signed into law the Tibetan Policy and Support Act (TPSA) 2020 in late December, Nepal knew it had to brace itself for the impending Dalai Lama succession fallout. The problem is that we don’t seem to know how.
The political system – as practiced – cannot confront the challenge. The Nepali psyche seems far more confounded. Politically, an independent, sovereign and democratic Tibet would appeal to Nepal. Geopolitically, it would mean we would lose our border with China, intensifying our innate sense of vulnerability. Democracy or the nation? That distasteful choice is looming larger.
With the Indians itching for a fight with China on the back of a gung-ho United States, the battle lines are clear enough. On the opposing side is a China buoyed by its success in overcoming the coronavirus pandemic at the end of the Hundred Year Marathon. Sure, many still speak of Beijing’s entrenched vulnerabilities. But, then, these are some same people who think an Indo-American alliance against China may have come too late.
However else he may try to distinguish himself from his predecessor, President-elect Joseph Biden can’t afford to go soft on China. No style change can unstiffen the substance of – to put it crudely – a life-and-death struggle over who will control the world. Trigger-happy constituents in the Washington policy establishment who passed for neoconservatives under Republicans are now with centrist Democrats.
In New Delhi, ‘hyperrealists’ need to contend with traditional realists before moving ahead to liberate Tibet and extend India’s strategic space. The wily Chinese have been trying to woo and warn average Indians well before they firmly hitch onto the American bandwagon.
Nepal needs to make allowances for anything between maintenance of the status quo and the emergence of a free Tibet, without losing its focus on the Dalai Lama’s succession struggle. Ordinarily, a process stretching over years, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, in his inimitably amiable style, has sought changes. His successor need not be a male and could be born outside traditional Tibetan territory.
His Holiness seems to have left so much wiggle room that the TPSA only categorically states that interference of the People’s Republic of China in decisions regarding the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation would amount to a violation of the fundamental religious freedoms of Tibetan Buddhists and the Tibetan people.
That stand contrasts with China’s contention that reincarnation is not a personal decision of the Dalai Lama. From Beijing’s standpoint, the process follows certain religious traditions and rituals and must be approved by the Chinese central government in a tradition dating back to the patron-priest system of the Qing Dynasty.
Significantly, Beijing considers issues related to Tibet intrinsic to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It believes it has weaned away enough traditional American allies on Tibet. China also seems to count on traditional divisions among Tibetan sects, which have only subsided amid the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s charisma. After all, they’ve dealt with parallel Dalai Lamas in the past. Heck, Beijing discovered one had been dead for years as advisers were counseling that he had gone into deep meditation. The Chinese believe tradition as a tool can be buttressed by Tibet’s modernization.
While Nepalis can’t fathom how the succession process might unfold, we do recognize that it will not be controversy-free. For all his ingenuity, Tenzin Gyatso probably won’t be fast-tracking the selection of his successor. A drawn-out contest can convulse Nepal for years on top of the broader geopolitical dynamics.
The bad news is that the Chinese don’t seem so happy about Nepal on this matter. True, they invaded us in retaliation for our invasion of Tibet in 1792 and turned us into a tributary. They may not have fulfilled their Betravati Treaty commitments, but they did tolerate the anomaly of the Dalai Lama paying tribute to Nepal even as Kathmandu sent quinquennial missions to Beijing. Communist China granted us the privilege of maintaining Lhasa’s only foreign consulate.
Beijing has run out of patience for excuses such as weak Nepali state capacity. In Chinese eyes, a country that could play a constructive if not entirely satisfactory role in the aftermath of the 1904 Younghusband Expedition and the 1913 return of the Thirteen Dalai Lama from exile could certainly do more to ward off anti-China tendencies today if it really wanted to.
The last high-level Chinese delegation was packed with ‘wolf warriors’ who refused Nepali security. Almost overnight, our discourse has shifted from Sikkimization-Bhutanization-Fijization to outright Koreanization. Now, that’s called a fast track.
by Maila Baje/nepalinetbook

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