BERLIN – The Dalai Lama is the Tibetans’ god-king and also the embodiment of India’s leverage on the core issue with China — Tibet. But with the longest-living Dalai Lama having turned 80 this month, the future of both Tibet, and the leverage that India has shied away from exercising, looks more uncertain than ever. Beijing is waiting for the exiled Tibetan leader to pass away to install a puppet as his successor, in the way it has captured the Panchen Lama institution.
The Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday came just weeks after the 20th anniversary of China’s abduction of the Tibetan-appointed Panchen Lama, one of the world’s youngest and longest-serving political prisoners. And it will be followed by the 50th anniversary of the founding of what China deceptively calls the “Tibet Autonomous Region.”
This, in reality, is a gerrymandered and directly ruled Tibet, half of whose traditional areas have been taken away and incorporated in Chinese provinces. Tibet was almost the size of Western Europe before it came under Chinese rule. China’s conquest of the sprawling, resource-rich Tibet enlarged its landmass by more than 35 percent, turned it into India’s neighbor, armed it with control over Asia’s major river systems, and gave it access to a treasure trove of mineral resources.
The Chinese name for Tibet since the Qing Dynasty — Xizang, or “Western Treasure Land” — underscores the great value that this restive region, strategically located in the heart of Asia, holds for China. With its galloping, often-improvident style of economic growth, China has depleted its own natural resources and now is avariciously draining resources from Tibet. Tibet — holding China’s biggest reserves of 10 different metals and serving as the world’s largest lithium producer — is now the focal point of China’s mining and damming activities, which threaten the fragile ecosystems and endemic species of the Tibetan plateau.
The world’s highest plateau, Tibet is one of the world’s most biologically diverse regions, with the rarest medicinal plants, the highest-living primates on Earth, and scores of bird, mammal, amphibian, reptile, fish, and plant species not found anywhere else. As a land that includes ecological zones from the arctic to subtropical, this plateau has a range of landscapes extending from tundra to tropical jungles, besides boasting the world’s steepest and longest canyon as well as its tallest peak, Mount Everest.
As Asia’s main freshwater repository, largest water supplier, and principal rainmaker, Tibet plays a unique hydrological role. With its vast glaciers and permafrost, Tibet is called the “Third Pole” because it has the Earth’s largest perennial ice mass after the Arctic and Antarctica.
No development since India’s independence has carried greater implications for its long-term security than the fall of Tibet. Indeed, China’s military and resource advantage gained by capturing Tibet — exemplified by the Tibetan plateau’s increasing militarization and the damming of its rivers, such as the Mekong, the Salween and the Brahmaputra — is turning into a strategic and environmental nightmare for downstream countries in Southeast and South Asia.
Yet for China, capturing the Dalai Lama institution has become a priority, as if it were the unfinished business of its takeover of Tibet.
The aging 14th Dalai Lama, while coping with bouts of ill health, has publicly discussed a range of reincarnation possibilities that break from tradition, including his successor being a woman or being named while he is still alive.
To avert a Panchen Lama-type abduction, he has even suggested that he be the last Dalai Lama or that the 15th Dalai Lama be found in the “free world” — among Tibetan exiles or in the Tibetan Buddhism citadels of Ladakh and Tawang in India. He, however, has yet to issue clear-cut guidelines on his reincarnation, raising the question whether it is a calculated move or a risky hesitation.
Nevertheless, it is doubtful that things would go China’s way in Tibet merely if it installed a marionette as the next Dalai Lama. Given how most Tibetans despise the China-appointed Panchen Lama as a fake, Beijing would be hard pressed to make its Dalai Lama appointee acceptable to them. Its bigger problem, however, would likely be different.
The present Dalai Lama, with his espousal of nonviolence and his conciliatory “Middle Way” approach of seeking Tibet’s autonomy without independence, has kept the Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule peaceful. But once he passes away, it is far from certain that the movement would remain peaceful or seek only autonomy. It is likely that his “Middle Way” approach would not survive after his death, thus closing Beijing’s window of opportunity to resolve the Tibet issue by conceding meaningful autonomy and beginning a process of reconciliation and healing.
The Tibetan resistance movement, for its part, would become rudderless, fueling greater turbulence in a region that China has tried hard to pacify.
The 15th Dalai Lama chosen by Tibetans to take on Beijing’s doppelganger appointee would be a small child. It was such a power vacuum that China exploited to invade and occupy Tibet when the present Dalai Lama was just 15. After the 13th Dalai Lama died in 1933, Tibet remained leaderless and wracked by fierce regent-related intrigues until the present Dalai Lama was hurriedly enthroned when the Chinese invasion started in 1950.
The next power vacuum in the Tibetan hierarchy could be historically momentous in sealing the fate of the Dalai Lama lineage, shaping Tibet’s destiny, and having an impact far beyond.
With China’s actions in Tibet posing a bigger challenge to India than any other country, New Delhi must not remain a mere spectator. India — home to a large Tibetan exile community, including the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile, and directly bearing the impact of China’s activities on the Tibetan plateau — has a legitimate stake in Tibet’s future.
Tibet is to India against China what Pakistan is to China against India. But in sharp contrast to India’s qualms about playing the Tibet card, Beijing has had no hesitation to employ the Pakistan card against India, including by building Pakistan as a military and nuclear balancer on the subcontinent. Beijing even plays the Kashmir card against an inordinately defensive India.
Even as China politically shields Pakistani terrorism against India — exemplified by its recent step to block United Nations action against the Pakistani release of U.N.-designated terrorist Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi — it has stepped up its own engagement with insurgent groups in India’s vulnerable northeast, including funneling arms to them via the Myanmar route and encouraging them to coalesce.
Tibet is India’s only important instrument of leverage against a muscular China bent upon altering the territorial, river-waters and geopolitical status quo, and fomenting terrorism in India’s northeast, which is sandwiched between Myanmar, Bangladesh, Tibet and Bhutan. Unfortunately, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has resumed doing what his supposedly “weakling” predecessor Manmohan Singh had halted since 2010 — referring to Tibet as part of China in joint statements with Beijing.
Tibet, ever since China eliminated it as a buffer with India, has been at the heart of the Sino-Indian divide. It will remain so until Beijing pursues reconciliation and healing there.
Modi, given his dynamic, forward-looking foreign policy, must work to gradually reclaim India’s Tibet leverage against a China that openly challenges India’s territorial integrity by claiming Indian areas on the basis of their alleged ecclesial or tutelary links with annexed Tibet. China’s attempt at expanding annexation in this manner draws encouragement from India’s imprudent acceptance since the 1950s of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet.
The Dalai Lama is India’s strategic asset and ultimate trump card. If India is to safeguard its Tibet leverage for use, it must plan to act as a pivot in the Tibetan process to find, appoint and shield the next Dalai Lama.
With China’s mega-dams, mines and military activities in Tibet set to increasingly affect Asia’s environment and security, the world’s leading democracies must consider playing a discreet role to help save the Tibetan plateau’s unique heritage from becoming extinct.
Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist and author, is a Richard von Weizsacker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.