Is it the End of Tibetan-American Relations?

The Administration of United States President Donald Trump has proposed zero aid toward Tibet in 2018, marking another major turn in the roller-coaster like trajectory of American-Tibetan relations.

Some analysts believe this is merely another mark in the changing face of international relations and geopolitics, as China emerges on the world stage, and the United States struggles to co-exist. Dr. Pradeep Nair, journalism professor at Central University of Himachal Pradesh writes, “The U.S. decision to withdraw its financial support to the Tibetan community may be seen as an initiative to normalize its relations with China under the changing geopolitical circumstances.”

At the same time, China is growing the dominant force in the Southeast Asia region and even extending its influence into South Asian countries in the form of aid and trade relations. Meanwhile, the United States has few reliable partners in China’s space of influence and she is losing its patience in trying to push Beijing to take a harder stance on the ever-erratic and global nuisance North Korea. Add to that the nationalist agenda proposed by President Trump and Tibet can become a playing chip in easing friction between the world’s two biggest economies.

The latest move marks a stark contrast from the last major episode in Tibetan-American relations: The U.S. “Tibetan Policy Act of 2002” enacted into law by President George W. Bush. The document lays out a road map to “support the aspirations of the Tibetan people to safeguard their distinct identity,” including by supporting “projects designed … to raise the standard of living for the Tibetan people and assist Tibetans to become self-sufficient.”

However, it stayed true to the status-quo that has remained stable in the last few decades. The U.S. supports China’s notion that Tibet is under China. The U.S’s role in Tibetan affairs is merely one of human rights and not statehood. But the new chapter essentially closes the door entirely leaving the U.S. with no role in Tibet whatsoever. Or is it closing that door to open a bigger one? Can it be just another part of Trump’s nationalist domestic agenda, or does it have international implications?

Nair maps out a brief history of American-Tibetan relations to examine these ideas.

On the eve of Communist China’s takeover of Tibet, the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi advised the State Department that the U.S should side with the Tibetans in such an event. The request was turned down. The Chinese came in and the “17 Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” sealed the deal following a not-so-peaceful episode.

Later in the midst of the Cold War in 1959, the U.S. began arming Tibetan rebels who began revolting in western China. This led to the exile of the Dalai Lama, whom the U.S. had previously recognized as the spiritual leader of Tibet having noticed his influence as a potential benefactor of the anti-Communist struggle.

The Dalai Lama’s call for autonomy as opposed to independence resonated well with the international community, which began to see him as leader effective at compromising. And the idea of protecting autonomy laid down the frame work for what would become American-Tibetan relations until now.

Of course there is always the possibility that closing the door on Tibet won’t turn the tide against China. The timeline of these relations may suggest the U.S. could gain from either ignoring or supporting Tibet — depending on what’s happening somewhere else.

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