Several days ago, the U.S. Congress passed its budget for fiscal year 2016, in which it allocated a funding package of $6 million for Tibetan communities in India and Nepal, double the assistance given in 2014. While some have wondered at this sudden gesture on the part of the United States, such a move comes as no surprise to those who have long observed U.S. actions in Tibetan affairs.
Americans accustomed to playing the “Tibet card” have grown anxious at the plight of the Dalai Lama and his followers, and taking the stage to play their hand in securing U.S. aid is an act of desperation. The year 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region’s creation, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the 11th Panchen Lama’s enthronement. China’s international prestige is on the rise, the economies of Tibet and the four provinces (Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan) are developing, their societies have stabilized and peoples’ livelihoods are improving. The 11th Panchen has grown in health and received the heartfelt well-wishes of the believers who follow him.
Meanwhile, the 14th Dalai Lama is now 80 years old, and may pass on before long; the so-called “Central Tibetan Administration” operating in exile in India has begun to make its selections in preparation for a changing of the guard. Since the beginning of the year, the Dalai Lama and his followers have sought to use the aforementioned commemorative occasions to foment chaos within China’s Tibetan regions, win sympathy from foreign nations and apply pressure on the central government. But after a year of frustrating toil, all they have witnessed is stability in Tibetan regions, the Dalai Lama’s skulking sojourns abroad being received with decreasing enthusiasm and fewer Chinese worshipers gravitating toward extra-national Buddhist assemblies. And all the while, those among the Dalai Lama’s followers seeking compromise have grappled with those pressing for independence, and the so-called “Sikyong” (the leader of the Central Tibetan Administration) has not made good on a single one of the promises made when seeking his position in 2011, while he has instead only become more adept at undermining the Dalai Lama’s authority. One could say that the separatist activities of the Dalai Lama’s faction are raising fewer and smaller waves. Even the efforts of the 14th Dalai Lama himself have garnered scant attention in recent years.
History has eloquently proven time and again that the old fallback of “U.S. aid” does little. Prior to the Tibetan uprising of 1959, the CIA specially trained Tibetan operatives at Camp Hale in Colorado, provided them with arms and airlifted them back into Tibet to participate in the rebellion. It was these commandos who escorted the 14th Dalai Lama as he fled to India following the failed uprising. In the 1960s, the CIA helped the Dalai Lama’s cadre re-establish the Chushi Gangdruk (Four Rivers and Six Ranges, the short form of the Kham Four Rivers, Six Ranges Tibetan Defenders of the Faith Volunteer Army) and provided funds to India and the Dalai Lama’s followers to jointly form the Indian-Tibetan Special Frontier Force, which harassed Chinese residents and troops along the Tibetan border. According to declassified files, the United States spent as much as $1.7 million per year for these projects.
After U.S.-China relations warmed in the 1970s, the CIA ceased funding arms subsidies for the Dalai Lama’s faction, but the U.S. government did not stop interfering in Tibetan affairs. In 1979, the year that the United States and China established official relations, the United States agreed to receive the 14th Dalai Lama. On Sept. 21, 1987, the U.S. Congress provided a platform for the 14th Dalai Lama to propose his “middle way.” Only six days later, heavy rioting began in Lhasa. Since the 1990s, the level of U.S. interference in China’s Tibetan affairs has steadily increased. In April 1991, President George H. W. Bush set a precedent by personally receiving the Dalai Lama. The U.S. State Department created the office of Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues in 1997. And in 2002, Congress passed the Tibetan Policy Act, which went into effect in 2003. Pursuant to the act, every year the U.S. government submits to Congress a “Report on Tibet Negotiations” and has provided large amounts of financial support to the Dalai Lama and his followers.
Every time China’s diplomatic standing with its neighbors improves, the United States reappears to manufacture what it deems to be a suitable amount of tension. In Chinese internal affairs relating to Tibet, the United States likes to pick its moments to give the Dalai Lama some encouragement. U.S. behavior this time around does nothing more than prove the point once again.
The author is a research fellow at the China Tibetology Research Center.