India should recalibrate its position on China, says president of Tibetan government in exile

Penpa Tsering says Beijing respects only strength, not weakness

20-Penpa-Tsering Penpa Tsering | Kritajna Naik

Interview/ Penpa Tsering, president, Tibetan government in exile

PENPA TSERING HAS been closely watching China’s military drills in the Taiwan Strait, renaming of villages in Arunachal Pradesh and the aggression in Ladakh. The president of the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala has trashed China’s claims over Indian territory, citing the 1914 Simla Agreement that defines the border between India and Tibet to which Tibetans were signatories. “Tibetans are happy with that,” he says. Excerpts from an interview:

As long as you keep giving more business to China, it will keep growing. And right now, there is no sign of China attempting to make a move towards more openness and becoming a responsible partner in the global community.

Q/ China’s military drills in the Taiwan Strait have spurred concerns about a potential armed conflict in the Indo-Pacific region.

A/ Some years ago, when China announced air defence identification zones, I told our American friends that if the Chinese can claim the air they will claim anything underneath that. This is exactly what is happening, and it is not just the endeavour of reunification or invasion of Taiwan. Look at the whole of South China Sea or East China Sea, alongside Japan and Taiwan. China is giving Chinese names to all these territories. This is to redefine history, remove the historical background and claim these territories as its own. Though China denies territorial hegemonic ambitions, the world knows better.

But I tell the Taiwanese that China is not ready to attack them yet. Xi Jinping keeps moving the generals and commanders from one place to another in a very short period of time. There is no time for the generals to build relations with cadres. A general and the second-in-command do not trust each other. Then there are political commissars who oversee their work and they also do not trust each other. It is good for Xi to ensure that there is no military coup against him, but it is not enough to fight a war. You need synchronisation among the cadres and also between the different arms of the military.

China is the only country that spends more money on internal security than external security threats, which demonstrates the deep distrust between the rulers and the ruled.

These are serious vulnerabilities aside from the economic wars that China is going through and the pivoting towards the Global South, which is also a huge competition for India. The question is how much purchasing power does the Global South have? And if China floods all the Global South countries with cheap products, it will kill all their small and medium-scale industries. Many already have realised the impact of Chinese investments in their countries. For example, all the African countries are now restructuring their loan repayment. And the level of debt economies that China has created around the maritime Silk Road and the taking over of strategic locations are known to people who understand China. Unfortunately, the Global South still has to learn more. They have very little understanding of China’s motivation.

Dalai Lama | AP Dalai Lama | AP

Q/ How do you assess the border dispute between India and China?

A/ Way back in 1949, just after communism took over China, it invaded Tibet. Now, it claims parts of the Indian territory as southern Tibet and Arunachal Pradesh. But we Tibetans were signatories to the 1914 Simla Agreement that defines the border between India and Tibet through the McMahon Line. We are happy with that. But China’s claim over all these territories in Arunachal Pradesh or in Ladakh is based on what it claims to be Tibet’s territory. It has now started renaming all territories, including those in Arunachal Pradesh. Therefore, the question now is whether the Tibetan interest and the Indian interest aligns or not.

India has been following the One China policy for decades. The only change now is that India does not keep repeating it. And, as I always say, India knows best. We also understand that India or any country will not leave aside its national interest for the interest of Tibet. But I think India tried its best to reach out to China, create a better atmosphere, both in political and business relationships. Unfortunately, China is pushing India more towards the west because of its behaviour.

Q/ Should India be worried about China’s ambitions?

A/ The question is whether China needs India and the western world more or the democratic world needs China more. As long as you keep giving more business to China, it will keep growing. And right now, there is no sign of China attempting to make a move towards more openness and becoming a responsible partner in the global community. Particularly in Europe and America, you get this feeling that you cannot make China more powerful than what it already is. Chinese investments are growing in space technology, military, quantum computing, artificial intelligence and the Belt and Road Initiative, and creating debt economies around the world. So maybe it is time for India to recalibrate its position on China. Beijing respects only strength, not weakness.

We follow a non-violent approach to resolve the China-Tibet dispute through the Middle Way policy espoused by the Dalai Lama (in pic), which can only be understood if we understand the polarities that exist.

Q/ The US Senate has passed the Resolve Tibet Act, urging the Chinese government to engage in dialogue with the Dalai Lama or Tibetan leaders to resolve the China-Tibet dispute. How significant is this development?

A/ We have been working closely with the US Congress over the past two years to move this bill called the Resolve Tibet Act, which talks about countering China’s disinformation on Tibetan history. And we are almost there. The bill was passed by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in November 2023, and this February it was passed on the House floor with 392 votes in favour. In April, it was unanimously moved in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and it recently went through the Senate. When it becomes a law in the US, it will become an important tool for us to reach out to other governments to counter China’s false narrative that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China.

We follow a non-violent approach to resolve the China-Tibet dispute through the Middle Way policy espoused by the Dalai Lama, which can only be understood if we understand the polarities that exist. One polarity is to understand the historical status of Tibet as an independent state, and the other polarity is the present situation of Tibet under the repressive communist government. The historical status has not been pushed as much as we would have liked to and China, on the other hand, has been asking every country to say that Tibet is part of PRC. That is why the law is important to explain to governments that if they keep parroting what the Chinese want them to say then it is against the law because if they support negotiations between Representatives of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government, then they cannot contradict themselves by saying Tibet is part of PRC, because that removes the very ground for negotiation.

Q/ The Dalai Lama turns 89 next month. As the political head of the Tibetan government in exile, what is your focus today?

A/ I have been travelling a lot to visit all the Tibetan settlements over the last two years. I promised my people that I would visit every single community two times in five years. We created a platform called the Voluntary Tibet Advocacy Group, where every Tibetan can join in advocating for Tibet. And this has been gaining ground now. One of our challenges is to prepare our younger generation for future leadership. Another challenge is to identify future challenges and make sure that those challenges are not there even before we reach there. Even though His Holiness keeps reassuring us that he will live for another two decades and more, we have to keep the community together, communications going on and reach out to the international community. I tell our Chinese friends, let us see whether Chinese Communist Party outlives the Dalai Lama or His Holiness outlives CCP.

Q/ Do you think it is time the Indian government openly declared that the Dalai Lama’s successor will be chosen by the Dalai Lama himself or the Tibetan government in exile?

A/ To some extent it is taken for granted as to where India stands on this, whether it says it vocally or not. I am sure the Indian government is concerned about these issues and developing its own strategy. I believe that it is not going to happen during my tenure. His Holiness will definitely live long. But, at the same time, just as every government has its protocols, we are also preparing protocols. Whenever that eventuality happens, it will be revised by successive Sikyongs or Kashag (cabinet) members at that time.

I am sure that the Indian government will also be seriously thinking about this even though I have not had concrete conversations about this. But I think it is understood that these are definitely matters of concern. Fortunately for the Tibetans, because of His Holiness’s leadership, we enjoy bipartisan, bicameral support on Tibet in the US. Even in the Indian Parliament, we have an all-party Indian parliamentary group for Tibet and all the successive governments have followed similar policies on Tibet. Of course, they are more vocal when they are in the opposition and less vocal when they are in government, but they all have the same thinking and support for Tibet.