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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

China's cold war on Tibet

December 5, 2008

ISN - Zurich,Switzerland
4 Dec 2008
 
By rejecting the Dalai Lama's call for autonomy for Tibet, Beijing could face greater upheaval in the future that would also affect ties with other countries, Sudeshna Sarkar writes for ISN Security Watch.
 
 
By Sudeshna Sarkar in Kathmandu for ISN Security Watch
 
Less than a week before the scheduled start of a critical China-EU Summit in Lyon on 1 December, the Chinese government has asked for the talks to be postponed indefinitely after learning that French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the rotating president of the Council of the European Union, would meet the Dalai Lama after the session.
 
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the meeting between the exiled Tibetan leader and Sarkozy, scheduled for this Saturday, had aroused "strong dissatisfaction of the Chinese government and people."
 
"The Tibet issue is related to China's sovereignty and territorial integrity and [has bearing on] China's core interest," a Ministry spokesperson said in a statement. "We resolutely oppose [the] Dalai's separatist activities in any [country] in whatever capacity, and the contact between foreign leaders with him in whatever form."
 
Almost as soon as Beijing decided to shelve the Lyon meeting, it sent Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who was to visit Myanmar this week, to Nepal first - the communist republic's southern neighbor, which is now emerging as an important factor in the battle over Tibet.
 
Yang's three-day visit to Kathmandu ended in a bounty comprising both usual and unusual offers. While China signed the usual technical and economic cooperation agreement worth 100 million yuan (over US$14 million) and agreed to look into the possibilities of extending the Beijing-Lhasa railway to its border with Nepal to boost bilateral trade and tourism, it also, unusually, offered security assistance. The latter comes at the cost of annoying India (the other South Asia giant), which contends that per old treaties, Nepal must consult New Delhi over security agreements with other countries.
 
Nepali Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav, who signed the agreement with his Chinese counterpart in Kathmandu on Wednesday, parried media questions on what the security assistance entailed. "It's training and equipment," Yadav said. "The details would be decided by the appropriate channels of both countries." 
 
Nepal is currently ruled by the Maoist party, consisting of former guerrillas who laid down arms two years ago and agreed to support a competitive multi-party democracy. When the then-coalition government, which included the Maoists, received unspecified military supplies from India in March, the former guerrillas called a general strike and set police posts on fire.
 
Devendra Poudel, a regional leader of the Maoists, was quoted at that time as saying that India's move was "a conspiracy to sabotage" the March national elections.
 
The re-emergence of a security assistance offer by Beijing less than nine months later is fueling speculation over the catalyst, especially with a renewed shoring up of Sino-Nepali military ties. In September, less than a month after he assumed office, Nepal Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa visited Beijing. The trip resulted in the communist republic offering once again unspecified military assistance.
 
In November, a high-level Chinese military delegation headed by a major-general visited Kathmandu. A second delegation, led by a lieutenant-general, is scheduled to arrive Saturday.
 
The Dharamshala factor
 
These activities are most likely related to the six-day meeting of exiled Tibetan leaders held last month in Dharamshala, India, the seat of the Dalai Lama's government in exile. The group gathered to decide the future strategy of the diaspora, which remains scattered since China's invasion and annexation of the Buddhist kingdom of Tibet in 1951.
 
With the Dalai Lama finally admitting that talks with Beijing - begun in 2002 to seek greater autonomy for Tibet - had failed, there was fear that the younger generations of Tibetans, who advocate a push for independence, would assume leadership and begin a new movement that could lead to confrontation and bloodshed.
 
Though the special meeting averted an immediate crisis by endorsing the Dalai Lama's leadership and his advocacy of the "Middle Way" approach - seeking greater autonomy within the framework of the Chinese republic in a peaceful way - Beijing still can't afford to relax.
 
The meeting, for one, has set the clock ticking. The nearly 500 representatives present at the Dharamshala gathering also agreed that they might be forced to seek independence if results of further engagement with China were not evident "in the near future."
 
Also, while the diaspora awaits results of engagement it has launched a Charter for Engagement in the Future of Tibet - an attempt to "engage directly with the challenges facing Tibetans on the plateau" and build a new consensus.
 
Beijing wants to stop such engagements at any cost and suppress any eventual attempt at freedom, which has led to its increased focus on Nepal. The border between Tibet and Nepal, though dominated by high Himalayan ranges, is the traditional route used for decades by Tibetans trying to escape from China-controlled Tibet or re-enter the heavily guarded territory. If the border can be controlled, contacts between Tibetans at home and abroad as well as future independence movements can also be controlled.
 
With this in mind, China has not just stepped up deployment of soldiers along the border but is also pressuring Nepal to regulate its border with India further southward. India and Nepal share an 1,800-km open border, which can be crossed by the nationals of both countries without passports or visas. China suspects that Tibetans from Dharamshala, or even the US and other countries, have been using this border to cross into Nepal to stoke anti-China protests in Kathmandu for nearly seven months.
 
The protests, with images of unarmed monks and women being subjected to brute force by security personnel, embarrassed Beijing before, during and after the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
 
The Chinese government considered the protests so grave an affront that it asked the then-Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Zheng Xianglin, to urge the Nepal government to adopt harsher measures that would deter the protesters. When the suggestion was not heeded by Nepal, Zheng was recalled after completing only half of his three-year term.
 
The new Maoist-led government of Nepal has pledged to uphold Beijing's "One China" policy that considers Tibet and Taiwan inalienable parts of the communist republic. It has also pledged not to allow Nepal's soil to be used for anti-China activities.
 
Though the earlier government made the same pledge, the Maoists have been able to implement it more effectively. The Tibetan protests have died down under Maoist rule and the threat of deportation hangs over future protesters.
 
Though successful with is neighbor, Beijing has been unable to convince other governments to adopt its views about Tibet and the Dalai Lama. China, which went to war with India in 1962, is displeased with New Delhi for allowing the Dalai Lama's "government in exile" to function from Dharamshala. It is also angered by repeated US intervention on behalf of Tibetans.
 
Washington had offered to Kathmandu to resettle 5,000 Tibetan refugees living in Nepal. However, the offer was blocked by an angry Beijing, which says there are no Tibetan refugees, only "illegal immigrants" who should be dealt with accordingly.
 
China: EU also to blame
 
The EU, especially France, is now on Beijing's peeve list as being the cause for the postponed summit.
 
"The current situation is not caused by China, nor should China be held responsible for it," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. "Nevertheless, China has not changed its determination and policy to actively develop its ties with the European Union. China is still willing to work together with the EU from the long term perspective, to push forward the healthy and stable development of China-EU relations on the basis of mutual respect on an equal footing."
 
Vincent Metten, EU policy director of International Campaign for Tibet, a New York-based Tibet rights organization, said in a statement that Beijing's "disproportionate action" was counterproductive to its own interests and may damage Europe's confidence in China as a responsible partner.
 
"Beijing cannot escape the reality that the EU, the US and the United Nations all have serious concerns about the political and human rights situation in Tibet," Metten said. "[All of them] respect the Dalai Lama's leadership and his willingness to engage with China."
 
Sudeshna Sarkar is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Nepal.
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