Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama delivers a speech during the Namami Brahmaputra Festival on the banks of the river Brahmaputra in Guwahati, India, on April 2, 2017. Photo: Anuwar Hazarika / Reuters

As a part of the Pandemic Relief Bill, last Sunday, US President Donald Trump abruptly signed the Tibet Policy and Support Act into law, which has raised several important issues regarding the Dalai Lama’s succession, preservation of Tibetan identity, democracy for Tibetan people, and the environment on the Tibetan Plateau, among others.  

Lobsang Sangay, president of the Tibetan government-in-exile, called this “a momentous milestone for US policy on Tibet,” followed by congratulating words from several Indian diplomats and strategic thinkers such as Brahma Chellaney and Ashok Sajjanhar. 

Zhao Lijian, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, on the other hand, criticized the US for interfering in “China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and urged the US to stop the activities that “hurt China’s interests.”

But another question is how this US policy on Tibet serves India’s interests.

The US policy protects the authority of the Dalai Lama and his future successors, and also supports the democratic Tibetan government-in-exile. What does this mean for India? 

The government of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, made the mistake of recognizing China’s sovereignty over Tibet in 1954, which jeopardized the legitimacy of the McMahon Line and Ladakh-Tibet treaties. 

The ramifications of this are illustrated by the dispute over the town of Tawang. India considers Tawang part of its state of Arunachal Pradesh, but Lian Xiangmin, director of the China Tibetology Research Center, has argued, “Tawang is a part of Tibet and Tibet is a part of China. So Tawang is a part of China. There is not much problem here.”

Also read: Importance of Tibet’s rivers for Asian water security

In this political dilemma, the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government-in-exile wholeheartedly support India’s position on the Himalayan border conflict against China. For instance, the Dalai Lama made six visits to Arunachal Pradesh between March 1983 and November 2009, and each time, he reconfirmed Tibet’s support on stand to the news media. 

Tibetan president Lobsang Sangay has explained, “Lhasa had always maintained that the disputed parts of Ladakh were always part of India as are parts like Tawang in the state of Arunachal Pradesh.” With such unwavering support of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan leaders, India has successfully managed to maintain its diplomatic strategy against China.  

Influence in global Buddhist community

In recent decades, India and China have fought for the leadership in Buddhist diplomacy in Asia. On May 4, 2015, speaking on the occasion of Buddha Purnima, (the Buddha’s traditional birthday), Narendra Modi, the current prime minister of India, claimed that “by following Buddha’s teachings of love and compassion, Asia could become an inspiration and guiding spirit for the world.”

But China has been upgrading its position by claiming that it has the largest number of Buddhist followers and monasteries, and making large donations to promote Buddhism.

For its part, India has less than 1% of the Buddhist population of the world and has failed to revive the lost tradition of in-depth Buddhist studies. India also obviously cannot offer huge funds, as China does, to build its influence among Buddhist communities in other countries.

However, as Isabelle Shi, a writer for the McGill Journal of Political Studies, has argued, India hosts the Dalai Lama, which is “China’s greatest weakness in the arena of Buddhist soft power. It cannot cultivate a benign, peaceful Buddhist image greater than that of the 14th Dalai Lama.”

Environmental issues

The US Tibet policy notes, “The Tibetan Plateau contains glaciers, rivers, grasslands, and other geographical and ecological features that are crucial for supporting vegetation growth and biodiversity, regulating water flow and supply for an estimated 1,800,000,000 people.” This policy directly highlights the problems of India and other downstream countries that depend on the rivers flowing from Tibet. 

The policy statement continues, “The People’s Republic of China has already completed water transfer programs diverting billions of cubic meters of water yearly and has plans to divert more waters from the Tibetan Plateau in China.” The matter of distribution and quality of water has been a source of tension between India and China for decades, and China always has the upper hand because the source of much of the water is Tibet. 

The livelihoods of millions of Indian farmers depend on the Tibetan rivers and the Himalayan climate, while the rivers also enable Indian hydroelectric projects and other industries. The new US policy promotes river-management transparency, pollution regulations and Himalayan ecological protection for long-term resource sustainability and its fair distribution. 

Besides such practical concerns, it is also perhaps India’s moral obligation to support – and emulate – this US policy on Tibet.  

Tibetans in exile, including the Dalai Lama, have made a great contribution toward reviving and popularizing Buddhist scholarship and Buddhist pilgrimages in India, which brings both rich cultural diversity and economic income to India.

As members of the Special Frontier Force (SFF) or Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), thousands of Tibetan soldiers have fought for India without any official recognition for many decades.

Despite a recent mutual pullback agreement on the Sino-Indian border conflict, satellite imagery has provided evidence of China setting up villages in formerly uninhabited stretches on its disputed Himalayan borders with India. Meanwhile China is pushing ahead with the construction of a new railway to connect Chengdu, one of its main military centers, with Nyingchi in Tibet, which is just a hundred kilometers from the Arunachal Pradesh border. 

It would be hard for New Delhi to come up with a sufficiently strong policy to make Beijing accountable for what it is doing in Tibet, India and many other South Asian countries. But the US has already taken such an initiative, India’s job is just to follow Washington’s lead and strengthen its own Tibet policy, because doing so will serve its diplomatic and geopolitical interests well.

Perhaps then many other Asian countries will join the movement and pressure China to settle the Himalayan political and environmental issues once and for all.

Kunsang Thokmay

Kunsang Thokmay (aka Darig Thokmay) is a PhD scholar in Asian studies at the University of Oxford. He has worked at many research centers such as Oxford Socio-legal Studies and the Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics. His work has appeared, apart from academic journals, at Asia Times, The Times of India, Asian Affairs and The Diplomat, among others.