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02 October 2023

Unwilling to upset China, West holds back on Tibet


The international community is treading warily on the Tibetan issue, reluctant to antagonise an increasingly powerful China with whom it has growing economic and diplomatic ties, analysts say.

Western countries have in the past expressed concern over China's treatment of Tibetans -- particularly in 2008 when riots in Tibetan-inhabited areas provoked a huge crackdown -- but now they are generally prudent and discreet.

A call from Lobsang Sangay, head of the exiled Tibetan government -- which is not recognised by any country -- for outside intervention after deadly police shootings last week in Sichuan province has fallen on deaf ears.

"China's emergence as a great economic power and a strong desire to tap into its markets come first," said Katia Buffetrille, an ethnologist and Tibet expert at the Paris-based Ecole pratique des hautes etudes, a leading research institute.

Compared to other ethnic minorities who have risen up against Chinese Communist rule -- such as Muslim Uighurs -- Tibetans are very popular abroad, helped by the global stardom of Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

Buddhist Tibetans are also seen as a peaceful people, and the mythical "Roof of the World" -- as their mountainous homeland is known -- fires the imagination, said Buffetrille.

But far from threatening China with sanctions or boycotting exports from the world's second biggest economy, the international community limits itself to urging dialogue between exiled Tibetans and Beijing.

All 172 countries that have diplomatic relations with Beijing also de facto recognise that "Tibet is an integral part of China."

So the distribution of pamphlets urging Tibet's independence during last week's protests made it even harder for countries to intervene, said Barry Sautman, a Tibetologist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

After the deadly clashes in Sichuan, which involved police shooting on protesters, the United States -- where the Tibetan lobby is very active -- urged dialogue and called on China to show "restraint."

But according to Sautman, "there is a sense of limitations that Western governments realise they have in terms of influencing that type of event."

"They can't much influence the political process by simply criticising the Chinese government, instead they have to do something which will ensure negotiations take place between the Tibetans-in-exile and the Chinese government."

These types of talks have taken place nine times since Beijing opened dialogue in 2002 under global pressure.

But Beijing has set as a precondition of any type of deal that the Dalai Lama recognise Tibet as an inalienable part of China -- which is unacceptable for exiles -- and so the talks went nowhere and have been stalled since 2010.

The European Union and United Nations have regular, discreet talks with Beijing about Tibet but China will not allow the UN into Tibetan-inhabited areas since a 2006 visit by the body's rapporteur on torture angered Beijing.

The international community should encourage China "to stop attacking the Dalai Lama, stop forcing monks and nuns to denounce him, and put some limitations of migrations (of majority Han Chinese) into Tibetan areas," said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University.

Another problem lies in the incoherent Western approach to Tibet, according to Barnett, who points to a "very divided American approach and Western Europe approach."

Britain, which in 1914 signed a treaty implicitly recognising Tibet as an independent entity, declared abruptly in 2008 that the region was an integral part of China, which it had never said before, he said.

Similarly, Barnett pointed to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has found it difficult to master a coherent approach to the Tibetan issue.

Observers will therefore be interested to see whether German Chancellor Angela Merkel will mention the Tibetan issue in a speech on Thursday in Beijing during her three-day visit to China.

She will address the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, whose head is Chen Kuiyuan who was Communist Party chief of Tibet from 1992 to 2000 and is described by analysts as a hardliner.