Xi Jinping's assertions on Tibet come in backdrop of LAC tensions, impending polls for government-in exile

FP Staff
·5-min read

Even as China has again ratcheted up tensions along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, it has also sought to assert its control over Tibet, which is a major cause for discord with India.

Chinese premier Xi Jinping on Saturday said China must build an "impregnable fortress" to maintain stability in Tibet, protect national unity and educate the masses in the struggle against "splittism", according to Reuters.

Two days after the comments, the Chinese army carried out "provocative military movements" to "unilaterally" change the status quo on the southern bank of Pangong lake, the Indian Army said on Monday.

The attempt, however, the army added in a statement, was thwarted by Indian troops.

Xi's comments on Tibet

At a senior Communist Party meeting on Tibet's future governance, Xi lauded the achievements made by the government and praised frontline officials, but also said taht more efforts were needed to enrich, rejuvenate and strengthen unity in the Tibetan region.

Political and ideological education needed to be strengthened in Tibet's schools in order to "plant the seeds of loving China in the depths of the hearts of every youth", Xi noted in remarks published by state news agency Xinhua.

Xi said that patriotism should be incorporated into the whole process of education in all schools.

The Chinese president also reportedly called for efforts to ensure national security and enduring peace and stability. He also sought to steadily improve people's lives, maintain a good environment, solidify border defence and ensure frontier security.

Visit of China's foreign minister

Xi's comments on Tibet, however, cannot be seen in isolation, and appear to be part of a broader policy push.

Just few weeks ago, on 17 August, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi made similar statements during a rare visit to Tibet and the border areas. Wang had emphasised that the security and stability of the region is important to the overall development of China, the Global Times quoted him as saying.

Top Chinese leaders and officials visit Tibet annually, but it is rare for the foreign minister to visit the remote Himalayan region.

During his visit, Wang had also spoken about the current international situation, apparently referring to US-China diplomatic, political and trade tensions, which has led to a new low in bilateral ties between the two countries in recent weeks.

In July, China had ordered the US to close the American consulate in Chengdu, located close to Tibet, in retaliation to Washington's move to shut down the Chinese consulate in Houston.

It is in this context that Xi's statements about building a "fortress" to maintain Tibet's stability gain significance.

Tibet and India-China ties

While the comments by the Chinese president have brought Tibet into the limelight, the issue has been a lingering point of concern for New Delhi and Beijing for over six decades.

China seized control over Tibet in 1950 in what it describes as a "peaceful liberation" that helped the remote Himalayan region throw off its "feudalist" past. But critics, led by exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, say Beijing's rule amounts to "cultural genocide", as noted by Reuters.

In 1959, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, fled to India. Since then, the Tibetan government-in-exile has been based in Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, which has been a major irritant in India-China ties.

The Dalai Lama's activities in India have sparked statements of displeasure from Beijing on many occasions in the past.

For instance, after the Tibetan spiritual leader's trip to Arunachal Pradesh in 2017, China had warned India that allowing the Dalai Lama to go there will have a "negative impact" on the settlement of the border dispute.

China also lays claim over Arunachal Pradesh and claims that the Indian state is "south Tibet".

However, at other times, India has been wary of needling China over Tibet. A prominent example of this was in 2018, when media reports said that the Centre had advised senior leaders and government functionaries to stay away from events organised by Tibetan leaders, citing "very sensitive times" in bilateral relations on India and China.

At the same time, the Centre, in a statement to the media, maintained, "India's position on the Dalai Lama is clear and consistent. He is a revered religious leader and is deeply respected by the people of India. There is no change in that position. His Holiness is accorded all freedom to carry out his religious activities in India."

However, there has been evidence of Beijing's attempts to target the Tibetan government-in-exile. A case in point is the arrest of a Chinese man in August 2020 on charges that he had been bribing some 'lamas' (Buddhist spiritual monk) in Delhi's Majnu ka Tila to gather information on Dalai Lama and his associates.

Upcoming polls

The attempts by the Chinese leadership to foreground the issue of Tibet comes ahead of elections scheduled to be held to elect the government-in exile.

According to an article in Hindustan Times, the election is scheduled to be held next year. The Tibetan Election Commission has announced dates for voter registration - from 1 September to 15 October, 2020.

The 2021 general elections will be held to elect the fifth directly elected Sikyong or president of the Central Tibetan Administration and the 17th Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile (TPiE), the chief election commissioner had told a press conference on 5 August.

Thus, Xi's comments on Tibet and the Chinese foreign minister's visit to the region are only the latest attempts to make its position clear on Tibet, at a time when the region may be poised for interesting developments.

With inputs from PTI

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