As I finished writing this article, the news flashed that “the Dalai Lama could possibly head to China on a private visit, the Sikyong (head) of the elected Central Tibetan Administration, Lobsang Sangay, confirmed today.” Sangay told the press: “Don’t read too much into it. At most it’s a private visit and it’s too early to say anything.”
The visit, if it materializes, is bound to be a serious security issue.
[Thankfully, the Dalai Lama’s visit to China was later denied by the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala].
Tibet and the Dalai Lama have recently been in the news. Does this mean that the Tibet issue is moving towards a solution? Probably not.
On November 23, the Dalai Lama affirmed in Kolkata: “Tibet does not seek independence from China but wants greater development. …China and Tibet enjoyed a close relationship, though there were occasional ‘fights’.”
While saying that China must respect the Tibetan culture and heritage, he added: “The past is past. We will have to look into the future. …We want to stay with China. We want more development.”
‘Development’ did not come up when the Tibetan spiritual leader met with former US President Barack Obama on December 1; they discussed ‘compassion and altruism’, according to an aide. The Dalai Lama said that the meeting with Obama was ‘very good, I think we are really two old trusted friends’; during their 45-minute encounter, the two leaders only discussed promoting peace in today’s world torn by strife and violence.
On his return to Dharamsala, the Tibetan monk announced that he may not travel abroad in the future; his fatigue had increased significantly, he said. He has already nominated two official emissaries, President Lobsang Sangay and former PM Samdhong Rinpoche who should be acting as his official envoys.
A few days later, the Dalai Lama was again in the news, he gave an unusually long (a full page of the newspaper) interview to The Times of India (ToI). Apart from mentioning the Tibetan tradition and its closeness to India’s belief system, and their relevance in today’s world, when asked about his earlier declaration about more development in Tibet, the Tibetan spiritual leader commented: “We also need material development. And many Chinese are showing genuine appreciation of Tibetans’ spiritual knowledge. …Eventually in the future, with Buddhism, we could control China. Yes, this is possible!” The Dalai Lama added: “The Chinese government must respect Tibetan culture and the Tibetan language. One time, Chinese narrow-minded officials deliberately tried to eliminate Tibetan language and script — this is impossible to do. Tibetans too have an ancient culture that’s difficult to eliminate.”
This time again, no word about returning to his native land and about ‘more development’ for Tibet which could become a serious problem for India.
What would indeed mean more development on the plateau?
For the Tibetans, it would probably translate into more Han Chinese migrating to Tibet in order to build and maintain new roads, airports, railway lines and cities.
For India too, it would have implications as all these new developments have a dual use, i.e. civil and military.
On July 1, 2016, China Military Online reported that a joint meeting on the development of military-civilian integration (known as ‘dual-use’) of airports had been held in Beijing.
On the agenda was the ‘Interim Provisions of Operation Security at Dual-use Airports by the PLA Air Force (PLAAF)’. According to the PLA website, it is based on win-win principles for both the military and civil administration. The new arrangement integrates the development of military-civilian airport resources between the PLAAF and civil aviation; the article further explained: “Its main purpose was to establish a complementary management mechanism with smooth coordination and shared resources to gradually form a support capability that guarantees flight safety at peace times and meets combat needs at wartimes.”
Soon after, Lhasa Gongkar airport became one the two first ‘integrated’ airports in China.
Since then, the National People’s Congress passed a new law dealing with national defense transport. The legislation covered the use of infrastructure for defense as well as civilian purposes. Xinhua reported: “The new law regulates the planning, construction, management and use of resources in transportation sectors such as railways, roads, waterways, aviation, pipelines and mail services, for national defense.”
After the recent incident at the trijunction between Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan, more ‘development’ facilitating the rapid deployment of troops and airborne Special Forces on the plateau, China could be tempted to enter into a conflict with India.
Another example: the Siang becoming black was recently commented on in the Indian press. Though not due to a ‘diversion’ of the Brahmaputra, the silt can, with certitude, be attributed to ‘developments’ in Southern Tibet and possibly to an earthquake which occurred on November in the vicinity.
The day the Dalai Lama met Obama, a Chinese website mentioned the road to Metok, the last Tibetan village before the Yarlung Tsangpo enters India in Arunachal Pradesh and becomes the Siang. The Chinese article says that Metok was an ‘isolated island’ due to lack of transportation: “The situation was unchanged until October 31, 2013 when Zhamo Road was completed …[since then] the road mileage has been increasing rapidly.”
Daqiao, Metok’s deputy county chief admitted: “The completion of the road also boosts local tourism, which has generated much more incomes for local people by offering services to a growing number of tourists.”
Wang Dong, Daqiao’s boss added: “We are upgrading the road this year with an investment of 1.2 billion yuan.”
It is a lot of money to ‘upgrade’ an existing road so close to the Indian border; undoubtedly, such ‘development’ will bring more silt to the Brahmaputra …and the PLA closer to India’s border.
In a related issue, former Ambassador Phunchok Stobdan commented in The Wire: “Within this rapidly-unfolding scenario, the Dalai Lama appears to have sent Samdong on a discreet visit to Kunming [in China’s Yunnan province]. Samdong’s visit, starting from mid November, must have been facilitated by no less than You Quan – newly-appointed head of the United Front Work Department that overseas Tibetan affairs. You Quan, who formerly served as party secretary of Fujian, is a close associate of President Xi.”
Though Samdhong’s visit has not been confirmed, it is doubtful that the Tibetans could sign a deal with an everyday more authoritarian regime in Beijing in the present circumstances; it is however worrisome for India. If the Dalai Lama returns to Tibet, will the Tibetans take Beijing’s side on for the disputed borders, particularly in Ladakh or Uttarakhand (in the case of Tawang, the Dalai Lama has made it clear time and again, that it is Indian territory)?
Another strange development is the nomination of a Tibetan General, Thubten Thinley to the recently-held Communist Party’s 19th Congress. General Thinley, besides being a rare specimen of a ‘minorities’ general’, specialized in military recruitment; his job is to recruit Tibetans in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). For China, it makes sense to enroll more Tibetans in the PLA and post them on the ‘Indian’ borders.
Local Tibetans are tempted by the enrollment, as it brings more decent revenues to the poorer sections of the Tibetan society,.
The Dalai Lama told the ToI: “China needs India, India needs China …There is no other way except to live peacefully and help each other.”
It might be true in theory, but the Doklam incident has taught us that there is a gap between the theory and the present practice.
India should be watchful of Beijing’s next move on the Tibet issue.
Claude Arpi is born in Angoulême (France) in 1949. His real quest started in 1972 with a journey to the Indian Himalayas. Since then he has been an enthusiastic student of the history of Tibet, China and the subcontinent. Claude Arpi regularly writes on the history, geopolitics and environment of the region as well as on the Indo-French relations. Presently Distinguished Fellow, Centre of Excellence for Himalayan Studies, Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence (Delhi)