On September 3rd, the world watched with fascination and at least a little trepidation as China marked the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender during World War II with a parade of troops and military hardware. The next day, the Pentagon acknowledged Chinese naval warships had entered US territorial waters in the Bering Strait. It was not a subtle message, even if Xi Jinping, dressed in a black Mao suit, did use the word peace more than a dozen times in his speech to mark the occasion.
These are not the only signals Xi is sending as he prepares for state visits to the US in September and the UK in October. From August 25th–26th, he presided over a top-level meeting on Tibet. According to Chinese state media, Xi vowed to “fight against separatist activities by the Dalai group,” a reference to the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, the meetingemphasized “stability,” a “political term associated with a dramatic expansion of military and police powers.”
Neither President Obama nor Prime Minister David Cameron will want Tibet on the agenda during Xi’s visits. However, both leaders should see Tibet as highly relevant to the problems they face with China’s military buildup and activities in the South China Sea.
China has been ratcheting up its repression and diplomacy on Tibet, especially since 2008, when widespread demonstrations revealed the depth of discontent there and the strength of a Tibetan national identity tied to reverence for the Dalai Lama. Chinese leaders know, or should know, that their claims to Tibet as a historical part of China are false and that only force holds Tibet under its control. They know also that the Dalai Lama no longer seeks independence, only autonomy within the People’s Republic. However, acknowledging any of this would prevent the Communist Party from portraying him and the democratic exile government as a threat.
In fact, Chinese leaders owe a debt to the former imperialist powers. Great Britain helped build up China’s illegitimate claims to Tibet as part of its rivalry with Russia during the 19th century Great Game. Xi should thank the British on his visit in October. He certainly doesn’t need to scold Cameron for meeting the Dalai Lama, since Cameron appears to have sworn off such meetings under Chinese pressure.
In addition to the late August meeting, a Politburo meeting in July also dealt with Tibet. Details are scant, but one report suggests leaders discussed the plan to impose the party’s own choice of Dalai Lama when the current, 14th one dies, an action that would surely trigger more, perhaps unprecedented, unrest.
The world has acquiesced to the conquest of Tibet, while China keeps making more demands, insisting on Tibet as a “core interest” and projecting its Tibet-related demands abroad, including, for example, by pressing neighboring Nepal to repatriate Tibetan refugees. Washington and London need to start talking about Tibet in historically truthful terms, and counter the Communist Party’s policies with a vision of freedom for both China and Tibet.