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. 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 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”. The two leaders 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 future due to fatigue. He has nominated two official emissaries, President of the Tibetan government-in-exile Lobsang Sangay and former Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile Samdhong Rinpoche to act as his envoys.
A few days later, the Dalai Lama was again in the news, he gave an unusually long interview to a leading national daily. Apart from mentioning the Tibetan tradition and its closeness to India’s belief system and their relevance today, he commented, “We 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!” He then added: “The Chinese government must respect Tibetan culture and 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.” What is meant by “more development” for Tibet? 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. But it could mean a problem for India as all these developments will have a dual use, 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 was 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 arran-gement integrates the development of military-civilian airport resou-rces between the PLAAF and civil aviation. The article further expla-ined: “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. And this led to the National People’s Congress passing a new law dealing with national defence transport. The legislation covers the use of infrastructure for defence and civilian purposes. Xinhua reported: “The new law regulates planning, construction, management and use of resources in transportation sectors such as railways, roads, waterways, aviation, pipelines and mail services, for national defence.”
After the recent incident at the tri-junction 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. 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 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.”
Metok administration is upgrading the road. It will take 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 a news website: “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 the newly-appointed head of the United Front Work Department overseas Tibetan affairs You Quan. Mr 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 would sign a deal with an authoritarian Chinese regime; 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 and Uttarakhand (in the case of Tawang, the Dalai Lama has made it clear time and again, that it is Indian territory)?
Another development is the nomFination of a Tibetan General Thubten Thinley to the Communist Party’s 19th Congress. 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 decent revenues to the poorer sections of society. The Dalai Lama told the newspaper: “China needs India, India needs China …There is no other way except to live peacefully and help each other.” Now, this might be true in theory, but the Doklam incident has taught us that there is a gap between the theory and the practice. India needs to be watchful of Beijing’s next move on the Tibet issue.