Rather than focusing on regional hegemony, India has always aimed at promoting cooperation through multilateral platforms – and the Tibetan Policy and Support Act (TPSA) represents yet another opportunity to strengthen its case for a permanent seat at the UNSC.
What connects a war veteran from Pennsylvania, a river that’s the source of life for more than 130 million people in China, India, and Bangladesh, a secret military unit made up of Tibetan refugees, a democratic government-in-exile and the resounding efforts of Indian diplomacy and foreign policy?
The US Senate earlier this week unanimously passed the Tibetan Policy and Support Act (TPSA) of 2020 that had been stuck at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since May – a bill that was introduced in US Congress by Scott Perry, a war veteran from Pennsylvania.
The historic decision makes it official that decisions regarding the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama in Tibet are exclusively within the authority of the current Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist leaders and the Tibetan people, and any interference by Chinese officials will be met with serious sanctions and be deemed inadmissible into the United States. Significantly, in order to promote access to Tibet as enumerated in the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, the TPSA calls for the establishment of a United States Consulate in Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet. Until such an establishment, the bill calls upon the Secretary of State to not authorize any new Chinese consulate in the United States.
“By passing the TPSA, Congress has sent its message loud and clear that Tibet remains a priority for the United States and that it will continue its steadfast support for His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the CTA. It is a momentous landmark for the Tibetan people,” said Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) President Lobsang Sangay.
It is also a momentous landmark for India, which after years of blow-hot blow-cold policy on Tibet, has worked in a steadfast manner to support self-governance and democratic institutions in the Himalayan region.
“India’s boundary dispute is intrinsically linked to Tibet. New Delhi’s recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet was contingent upon China’s acceptance of Tibetan autonomy,” said Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta, a founding member of the Indian Defence Planning Staff and former Commander of Indian Peace-Keeping Forces. “The Dalai Lama gave up the quest for independence in exchange for genuine autonomy within China. Beijing has squashed autonomy and not kept its side of the bargain with Tibet and China,” he wrote in the Quint.
The bipartisan TPSA Bill commends the Dalai Lama for his decision to implement democratic governance and also commends the Tibetan exile community for successfully adopting a system of self-governance with democratic institutions to choose their leaders. In addition, it formally acknowledges the CTA as the legitimate institution reflecting the aspirations of the Tibetan diaspora around the world and Sikyong as the President of the CTA. “I have been in Washington DC for the last five days closely watching the passage of the Bill and finally it’s good to see efforts bearing fruit,” Sangay said in a tweet.
In many ways, those efforts are also linked to India’s diplomatic measures and policies pursued not only in support of Tibetan exiles but also to safeguard its own riverine resources and Himalayan borders. Rather than focusing on regional hegemony, India has always aimed at promoting regional cooperation through multilateral platforms to resolve any disputes arising out of the region – a strategy that will yet again bolster New Delhi’s case for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council.
Coming close on the heels of India’s raft of measures undertaken during the pandemic to help other nations around the world, rushing aid and medicines to virus-stricken countries, ramping up Covid-19 vaccine production and helping keep the Indo-Pacific safe and free for trade, the US stamp of approval on Tibetan self-governance is certainly a strategic win for New Delhi.
The Brahmaputra river, for instance, is a source of life for more than 130 million people in China, India, and Bangladesh, but also a persistent irritant. The three riparian countries have never concluded a water-sharing agreement. The prospects of a “water war” involving a conflict over scarce resources, a probability exacerbated by the impact of climate change, has turned the river into a challenge to be managed rather than an opportunity to drive regional cooperation.
Protecting riverine resources
In this regard, the TPSA introduces new key provisions aimed at protecting the environment and water resources on the Tibetan plateau. It recognizes the importance of traditional Tibetan grassland stewardship in mitigating the negative effects of climate change in the region as opposed to the Chinese government’s forced resettlement of the nomads from grasslands. In addition, it calls for greater international cooperation to monitor the environment on the Tibetan plateau, including the health of the rivers. American citizens and companies engaged in business activities in Tibet are encouraged under this Bill to practice corporate social responsibility and to adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
While the TPSA is certain to exert further pressure on China, India has also taken calibrated steps to evolve the dynamics of the region.
The existence of the Special Frontier Force (SFF), a covert military unit largely comprising Tibetan refugees and boasting about 3,500 soldiers fighting for India, has always been a secret since its inception after the 1962 Indo-China war. But in August, when Nyima Tenzin, a 51-year-old veteran of the force, died in a landmine blast near Pangong Tso Lake in the Himalayan region of Ladakh – where Indian and Chinese troops have been facing off in recent months – the people of Leh and the Tibetan community came together to bid him farewell in a grand funeral, complete with military honours and a 21-gun salute. Senior BJP leader Ram Madhav attended the funeral and placed a wreath on Tenzin’s coffin, which was draped in the flags of India and Tibet and was carried to his home in an army truck.
Against this backdrop and with the passage of the TPSA, the conditions are ripe for India to put the spotlight on Tibet, said Maj Gen (retd) Mehta. “The Tibet issue can be internationalised – introduced in the UNSC in the two years of India’s chairmanship of it starting 2021. The Tibet issue can join the Draft Convention on Terrorism in the UN, which has become India’s signature tune,” he said.
With India’s firm support, the TPSA can thus become a powerful instrument for promoting democracy and human rights in the region. “One should hope President Biden will intensify the campaign for full freedom and autonomy in Tibet and that on this one issue India can form an active alliance with US, without forfeiting its strategic autonomy,” Maj Gen (retd) Mehta said, adding: “It is this new Great Wall that India must start to ‘breach’. India has to take the lead in Tibet’s cause and the time to act is now.”