Nitin Pai: After the Dalai Lama

By Nitin Pai

Future of millions of Tibetans around the world will depend on who takes his place as the spiritual leader
It is generally considered poor form to speculate on the consequences of a person’s death, especially if that person is as graceful as Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Distasteful as the venture may be, it must be undertaken because of what is at stake — not only the future of millions of Tibetans around the world, but also, because of its connection to India-China relations, the Indo-Pacific region as a whole. The Dalai Lama himself might react to this column without disapproval, perhaps even pass it on to his associates with a mischievous grin. In any case, I write this, seeking and presuming his forgiveness.
Let’s set aside the short-term consequences for a moment. These involve who will take his place as the spiritual leader; what kind of relations the new spiritual leader will have with the elected Tibetan government-in-exile; and how he is accepted by the Tibetan communities and, most importantly, by the world’s governments.
Important, yes, but the medium-term consequences are even more so. In the decade following the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s death, there will be two big uncertainties: one, whether new generations of Tibetans adopt violent methods; and two, the extent to which China changes to accommodate their aspirations. Depending on how the Tibetans and the Chinese change their approaches, we can paint four broad scenarios.

The first scenario is of civilised accommodation, wherein the Tibetans persist with the politics of non-violence and the Chinese state becomes far more accommodating to the Tibetans’ cultural aspirations. This does not require the People’s Republic of China to turn into a liberal democracy. Rather, it requires Beijing to acquire the confidence that a national minority can enjoy genuine freedoms while remaining a part of China. While the cultural hegemony of the Han Chinese over the Tibetans, Mongols, Uyghurs and others has a long history, the contemporary quest for freedom is common to them all. The Chinese people might not yearn for Western- or Indian-style democracy, but they do seek to change the boundaries that their Communist Party rulers have laid out for them. For civilised accommodation to take place, they must not deny the minorities the freedoms they gain.

If China insists on imposing its political and cultural dominance on a Tibet that sticks to non-violent politics, we will have the second scenario — the tragedy of global conscience. It will keep China on the defensive in international fora. People in democratic countries will remain suspicious of Beijing regardless of how much power it acquires. The world’s governments will certainly do business with China because they have to. However, China will never be genuinely popular among the world’s people, regardless of how many Confucius Institutes are built and how much Xinhua and CCTV expand their media footprints. Moreover, around the world, aggrieved people will find the politics of non-violence less attractive, creating pretexts and justifications for violence elsewhere.

The third scenario has an unrelenting China hobbled by the Tibetans taking up arms, turning Tibetan-majority areas into theatres of insurgency and targeting Chinese cities with terrorist attacks. We saw this pattern across the world in the previous century. Many of us will find it hard to imagine a Tibetan militant, not least because Buddhism severely discourages violence. It would, however, be overly presumptuous to believe that newer generations of Tibetans will not reject the methods of their predecessors as failed. They could well decide to pursue an asymmetric war against the Chinese state. In doing so they will check China’s ability to project power abroad, diverting more state resources towards internal security and damaging social capital. At the same time, Tibetan militancy will cause the world’s governments, including India’s, to be less enthusiastic in their support for the Tibetan cause.

The final scenario has the Tibetans achieving their national aspirations through the use of violence. This will result in a Tibet sans its soul. It will also become a strategic buffer between India and China, restoring a state of affairs that obtained through much of history.

The upshots are the following. Unless the Tibetans can be certain that China will yield, taking up arms will be counterproductive because it neutralises their higher moral ground. Unless China becomes more accommodating, it will find itself confronting geopolitical costs that undermine its developmental goals. Both China’s allies and adversaries stand to benefit if the Tibetans choose the path of violence. Allies become more valuable during bad times. Adversaries, though, will face a paradox. Keeping China preoccupied with its internal troubles will come at the cost of losing the levers used for the purpose.

Scenarios are not predictions. They are tools to prepare for the future. As the Dalai Lama said,  “Death ... is unavoidable. This is why it is important that during our lifetime we become familiar with the idea of death, so that it will not be a real shock to us at the moment it comes ... we believe that if we begin to prepare for it and an earlier point in time, on the day of our death it will be easier to accept it.”

NOTE--The author is a founder and fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution, an independent networked think tank on strategic affairs.

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