Tibet: The Washington Perspective

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Official US policy toward Tibet has been indifferent at worst and equivocal at best. Although this policy appears to be changing under pressure from the US Congress and other governments, Tibet in the eyes of the State Department remains somewhat of a bothersome orphan whose demands for attention are more trouble that they are worth.

In September, when the Dalai Lama visited Washington as a guest of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus (of which I am co-chair) and issued a five-point peace plan for Tibet, 66 of my colleagues in the House joined me in writing to President Reagan, urging him to press for the plan. The reply, through the State Department, was that the US government considers "Tibet to be a part of China." While supporting human rights for Tibetans, the government regarded most parts of the five-point program as "contrary to U.S. policy" and could "damage U.S. relations with the People's Republic of China."

For the most part, Tibetans have heard that all before. In recent decades, if their country was considered at all by Washington, it was always in the context of bigger, ostensibly more important countries. More to the point, and to steal a line from a Cosmopolitan magazine drawing, Tibet has traditionally been the trois in a menage à trois, the other parties being India and China.

Not until World War II did the US government shape any policy toward Tibet, and the beginning was hardly auspicious. As Michael C. van Walt van Praag discovered while researching his 1987 book The Status of Tibet: History, Rights and Prospects in International Law (Boulder, CO: Westview Press), the State Department's first known reference to the country came in June 1942, in a included in a description of "total Chinese territory." A startled British Foreign Office questioned the State Department's geography, only to be told that China always claimed hegemony over Tibet and the US government had no quarrel with that claim.

Even then arguments erupted to the effect that US-China relations should not be disturbed over pesky problems in Tibet. In an internal wartime memo, a state official said that any relations with the Tibetan authorities should "avoid gratuitously or inadvertently giving offense to the Chinese Government." In the late 1940s, Tibet wanted to send a trade mission to Washington to meet with President Truman, but how could the US accept without irking the Nationalist Chinese? The suggested compromise was to have the Chinese ambassador to the US accompany the Tibetans, but the Tibetans rejected the idea and agreed to meet instead with the secretary of state.

Only when Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communisty Party came to power and Washington broke diplomatic relations with Beijing did sympathy for the Tibetans begin showing up at the State Department. Yet official Washington policy remained equivocal, as van Walt points out. On the one hand, Washington was eager to oppose the spread of Chinese communism. On the other, the government did not want to provoke the Chinese by going so far as to supply guns and ammunition to the Tibetans. So, the State Department cancelled a visit to Lhasa by an official US mission and decided against formally recognizing elements in Tibet that were demanding independence. The delay proved devastating. On 7 October 1950 the Chinese began a full-scale invasion of Tibet, India immediately condemned the attack as "deplorable," and both Washington and London supported that position. But India moved quickly to restrain the US from doing much more than issuing statements.

Indian prime minister Nehru even requested the US government to not condemn China for invading Tibet, lest China believe even more that Western governments had an interest in Tibet and were thus behind any action that India took. Any meddling by Washington, Nehru felt, would only worsen relations between India and China and undercut any attempts by India to do anything at all for Tibet. So limited, the US was left with the timid alternative of pleading the Tibet's case be heard by the United Nations, but nothing ever came of it.

When Tibetans rebelled against Chinese rule in 1959, forcing the Dalai Lama and 60,000 of his followers into exile in India, a strong statement on behalf of Tibet was issued by the State Department. Assistant Secretary of State J. Graham Parsons condemned Chinese suppression and said Beijing's "colonial rule" in Tibet was one reason other Asian countries would not easily accept communism. Acting Secretary of State Christian Herter said he was "deeply shocked...about the ruthless suppression of human liberties and the determined effort by the Chinese Communists to destroy the religions and culture of the people of Tibet."

In that same year, the US supported an appearance by the Dalai Lama before the United Nations. Said a spokesman, "We believe the world should hear what he has to say, for the situation in Tibet has implications for free peoples everywhere."

But America's words proved to be stronger than its deeds. It did not recognize the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile, fearing as did most Western governments that China would disapprove. That facilitated the bloodbath that followed - China's brutal retaliation against Tibetans who had rebelled. When the Cultural Revolution began in the mid-1960s, Red Guard excesses went even further in Tibet. More than a million Tibetans were murdered, 6,000 of their monasteries burned, their language shunned and important manuscripts destroyed.

Mao's successor Deng Ziaoping began easing up on Tibet, but it was still the same old story of Tibet vs. Washington. The US had once again established diplomatic relations with China. So when rioting erupted last October and foreign tourists and journalists were expelled, one part of the State Department's reaction was less surprising than a snowfall in Lhasa. Said J. Stapleton Roy, deputy assistant secretary of state, before the House Foreign Affairs subcommittees on Human Rights and Asian and Pacific Affairs, "The U.S. Government considers Tibet to be a part of China and does not in any way recognize the government in exile that the Dalai Lama claims to head."

Yet in fairness to Mr. Roy, I must also say that his statement, perhaps more so than any other since the Dalai Lama left his homeland almost 30 years ago, reflected a growing interest by the State Department in human rights violations in Tibet, and a willingness to challenge the Chinese over those issues. Tibetans, he said, do not enjoy full democratic rights and freedoms: "We cannot condone the use of weapons by public security authorities against unarmed demonstrators. We believe in the right of free and peaceful expression." The US had complained through its office in Beijing. "The current situation," said Roy, "is not as favorable as the Chinese would have us believe."

This critical position evolved over several weeks, as Congress and the Congressional Human Rights Caucus spoke out against what was happening, pressing the administration to speak up and act. Although it falls far short of fully challenging the human rights abuses of Tibetans by the Chinese, the official view of the State Department appears to be moving in the direction of getting tougher with China over Tibet.

Congress should, and will, keep up the pressure on both the State Department and the Chinese to see that human rights are respected in Tibet. On December 22, President Reagan signed into law a Foreign Relations Appropriations Act with an amendment urging China to "respect internationally recognized human rights and end human rights violations against Tibetans." In previous decades, human rights as an issue was not clearly defined for Tibet; the "roof of the world" was seen as a geopolitical battleground where the well-being of people did not count for much.

Now, it does. As I have said frequently, human rights are indivisible - a violation anywhere is an affront to all, whether in South Africa over apartheid; in the USSR over oppressive policies that separate spouses and eliminate religious freedom; or in Tibet over monks who wish to be free to teach their culture, language and religion to children.

In December, along with 250 other members of Congress, I signed a letter to Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev saying that human rights violations, not arms control, was the major issue between Washington and Moscow. The same can be said of relations between Washington and Beijing. The full benefits of relations between the countries cannot be realized unless the Chinese fully recognize the right of Tibetans to be different and vocal.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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