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Sino-EU ties hijacked by Tibet issue

March 29, 2009

By Jian Junbo
Asia Times
March 27, 2009 (Hong Kong)

SHANGHAI - This month, the European Union (EU)
parliament passed a resolution on the Tibet
issue, urging the Chinese government to resume
dialogue with the Tibetan spiritual leader in
exile, the Dalai Lama, for "real autonomy for
Tibet". However, a Chinese government
spokesperson immediately rejected this, saying
the call was interference in China's "internal affairs".

Not only the EU, but also all of its member
states acknowledge that the Tibet Autonomous
Region is a part of China, and they all adhere to
the "one-China" policy, at least according to
their laws and official statements.

This raises the question of why the EU parliament
would endorse such a resolution when it was bound
to be rejected by China, especially in the
current economic climate, when the EU wants to
build closer relations with China?

Firstly, the issue of human rights will always
carry weight in the EU's foreign policy, and the
Tibet issue fits into this category, that is,
China's Tibet policy is perceived as human rights
abuse. Moreover, the EU parliament passed the
resolution on March 10, the 50th anniversary of
the failed Tibetan armed uprising against Chinese
rule, which ended with the Dalai Lama's fleeing
Tibet for India, where he resides to this day.

So, for the EU parliament, it was a convenient
date to bring up the Tibet issue. By doing this
the EU could display its image of "normative
power", while also showing that it has the
resources and will to spread its Western values
to other countries even when the world economy is in recession.

With the rise of the co-decision procedure in the
EU, which places its council and parliament on an
equal footing, the EU's parliament can to a
certain extent impose its will on other
institutions, especially on its executive
institution, the EU Commission. In this sense,
the parliament's Tibet resolution reflects the EU's new structure.

Thrusting European values onto other countries is
a longstanding strategy of the EU. By doing this
it hopes to strengthen its soft power in the
world and enhance its independence from the
hegemonic umbrella of the United States. With the
US suffering from the financial crisis, the EU
has taken a chance to speak louder, to spread its
soft power in competition with the US, and to
strengthen its status in the international community.

 From this perspective, it is understandable why
the EU has criticized China's domestic affairs in
fields like human rights and religious policies,
and on the Tibet issue in particular.

The EU's criticism toward China is therefore more
part of this long-term strategy, to expand its
soft power, than out of any real concern over
human rights in Tibet. For the EU, no other
human-rights issue has a better leverage on China
than Tibet. The Tibet issue has ethnic, religious
and cultural dimensions, and led by the Dalai
Lama, exiled Tibetans are well organized in their opposition to Beijing.

It is exactly because of the sensitivity of the
Tibet issue that Beijing carefully guards itself
against what it sees as foreign intervention,
particularly after it became common knowledge
that the US Central Intelligence Agency had a
hand behind the armed Tibetan rebellion in 1959.

 From China's perspective, there are historic
reasons to reject the EU's criticism. The EU
parliament has passed anti-Chinese resolutions in
the past concerning human rights, arms sales and
Taiwan. The recent resolution regarding the Tibet
issue was so sensitive that the Chinese government had to oppose it.

In principle, anything that happens in Tibet is
China's domestic affair. The EU parliament's
resolution is interference in Chinese sovereignty
and therefore poses a challenge to the Chinese
government's authority. Since its founding, the
People's Republic of China (PRC) has regarded
non-intervention in another country's internal
affairs as a sacred principle of foreign relations.

As an ancient country but also a modern nation in
the making, China's strict adherence to this
equality of nations is easily understood, as it
is the very foundation for the independence of a
developing country. As such, China strongly
opposes any kind of interference in its domestic
affairs, seeing them as a violation of its sovereignty.

China views the Tibet issue in terms of
sovereignty, so will never allow it to be
internationalized. For China, "a sovereignty
issue is not open to negotiation [with any
foreign country]", as late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping once said.

Beijing fears foreign support like the EU
parliament's Tibet resolution will encourage
exiled Tibetans, led by the Dalai Lama, to
advance their cause. Beijing rejects the Dalai
Lama's demands for the "real autonomy" of Tibet on two grounds.

Firstly, the Dalai Lama wants a greater Tibetan
region to cover all Tibetan-inhabited areas
including the whole of Tibet, Qinghai province
and parts of Sichuan and Gansu provinces. This
would take a quarter of China's total land area.
In history, no Dalai Lama as Tibetan god-king has
ever ruled such a huge region.

Secondly, Beijing sees the demand for "real
autonomy" as an attempt to restore the serf
system that existed before the 1950s when the
Dalai Lama was god-king. This is why Beijing has
rejected any attempt to seek virtual independence
or semi-independence of a greater Tibet.

Beijing can never give in, as if the Dalai Lama
gets what he wants, other ethnic minorities, such
as Uyghurs in Xinjiang, would be encouraged to
demand the same. The consequences would be
disastrous for the central government.

The conflict lies in the EU viewing Tibet as
human-rights issue, while the Chinese government
sees it as a sovereignty issue. The EU is using
the Tibet issue to spread its values and enhance
its soft power in the international community,
while China opposes this and worries about other
political fields, such as the unity of Chinese territory.

Both for China and the European Union, this
confrontation will undermine the base of good
bilateral relations in the long run.

A good way to ease tensions would be to set the
Tibet issue aside from bilateral relations
between China and the EU and its member states.
To allow these strategic partnerships to be
hijacked by the Tibet issue shows a lack of
political wisdom and would jeopardize bilateral
cooperation in such important areas as economy, technology and global affairs.

It is unlikely the EU will change its strategy of
value expansion, but this could take the form of
more useful and reasonable approaches, such as
informal talks. China will never accept formal
dialogue with the EU and its members over the Tibet issue.

If the EU does not have the capacity to
internationalize the Tibet issue - this tactic
will deeply harm European interests in the end -
the EU must not attempt to do so. The US does
somehow successfully "internationalize" the
Taiwan issue to a certain degree, but the Tibet
issue is quite different from Taiwan. In short,
the EU may need to find a more constructive approach toward the Tibet issue.

The EU ought to respect Chinese sovereignty and
stop trying to intervene in Tibet's affairs
through a unilateralist approach. Although China
will reject formal talks with the EU on Tibet, it
is likely to listen to its suggestions if the EU
and its members can deal with the issue from a
friendly and constructive approach that would not
be considered as intervention in domestic
affairs. Chinese people always hope their friends can save their "face".

A constructive rather than an unilateralist
approach to deal with the Tibet issue and even
other bilateral quarrels between these two powers
is a better option for the European Union and its
member countries, by doing this the EU could
enhance its strategic partnership with China, a rising power in the world.

Dr Jian Junbo is assistant professor of Institute
of International Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.

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