Fascination with Tibet has no effect on foreign policy



TIBET has long captivated America with images of its Himalayan snow-capped mountains, maroon-robed monks and Nobel peace laureate Dalai Lama seeking freedom for his Buddhist followers from Chinese repression.

A clever play on the imagination and a successful PR campaign by lobby groups have meant that Tibet will always remain in the spotlight in American popular culture.

This has done little, however, to affect US policy following the latest eruption of violence there. The Bush administration, wary of rupturing ties with China, is unlikely to do anything more than rebuke Beijing and call for restraint.

“For many, the obvious answer to do more about Tibet is to boycott the Olympic Games,” said Mr Douglas Paal, a seasoned Asia hand who has served in three US administrations.

“Any government, especially the US, that considers doing that will have to wrestle with the long-term costs of angering not just the leaders at the top of the Chinese government, but the Chinese people…”

So, the US has opted to take the path of least resistance: calling for dialogue.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Monday that Washington had urged Beijing over the years to find a way to talk with the Dalai Lama. Mr T. Kumar of Amnesty International USA believes that Washington needs to do more.

“President George W. Bush is the only person who can make a difference but he has chosen to remain extremely silent. If America does not take the lead, no other country can.”

The US has long recognised China’s sovereignty over Tibet, refusing to support calls for independence. Not until the Cold War did it become interested in Tibet.

The US initiated secret talks with Tibetan dissidents in 1950 to fight communism and harass Beijing. The Central Intelligence Agency covertly supported a burgeoning guerilla movement there. From 1971 – when CIA funding presumably ended – US interest in Tibet waned as relations with China warmed.

But mounting pressure from the lobby groups – spearheaded by the International Campaign for Tibet – kept the issue alive. They found a receptive hearing with the US Congress, which held testimonies and passed a series of non-binding resolutions.

Official US policy remained unaltered but congressional support meant that Tibet remained on the agenda. The Dalai Lama’s popularity also soared.

Last year, President Bush upset China when he personally presented the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honour.

Fleeting romanticism about Tibet flies in the face of a foreign policy guided by realpolitik.

“For the US, it is not just about jeopardising its relations with China,” Professor Thomas Grunfeld, a leading expert on Tibet at the State University of New York, told The Straits Times.

“Tibet is of little geo-strategic importance to the US. It’s not worth taking the risk. Period.”

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