While foreign policy pundits in the US differ on what policies and strategies Joe Biden should adopt towards China, there is near-unanimity that China represents the biggest foreign policy challenge for the incoming presidency.

Though there are many irritants in US-China relations – from differences over tariffs to Beijing’s increasing tendency to flex its military muscles in Asia – one issue that has been somewhat in the background is likely to flare up during the next presidency: Tibet and the Dalai Lama.

In a sense, the US has fired the first shot even before Biden takes charge in the White House. Earlier this week, the US Senate approved The Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020 (TPSA) as part of an amendment to the spending bill.  

Among other things, US lawmakers reiterated their country’s position that the choice of a successor to the 14th Dalai Lama should lie with the Tibetan people and not be imposed on Tibet by Beijing.

China reacted sharply to the passing of the Tibet Act. While that should not come as a surprise, Biden might have to take a more forceful stance on the issue. The 14th Dalai Lama is 85 years old and the issue of his successor has assumed a sense of urgency.

The 14th Dalai Lama – the great escape

Dalai Lamas are regarded as human embodiments of Avalokiteshvara, the protector of Tibet and the bodhisattva of compassion.

The 13th Dalai Lama died in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa on 17 December 1933. As is custom, the regent sent search parties to locate the child who would become the next Dalai Lama. A young boy named Lhamo Dhondup living in northeastern Tibet met all the criteria and was proclaimed the next Dalai Lama.  

He was enthroned on 22 February 1940 in Lhasa.  

However, less than a decade later, the Chinese communists who had come to power in Beijing declared that Tibet was part of China’s “motherland”.

There were violent clashes in Tibet. Under pressure, in May 1951, a Tibetan delegation ceded control of Tibet to China.

Through the 1950s, the young Dalai Lama kept the lines of communication open with the Communist leadership and the Chinese military officers stationed in Lhasa. But China was determined to crush the spirit of the Tibetans. Finally, in March 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama made a dramatic escape across the Himalayas, on foot and horseback, with a small contingent of his most loyal men, and arrived in India where he was given asylum by the Jawaharlal Nehru government.

India and Tibet

The 14th Dalai Lama continues to be in exile, in the upper reaches of Dharamshala town in the state of Himachal Pradesh, and Tibetans operate a Government-in-exile from there.

India has, however, been careful so far to not play the ‘Tibetan’ card. While it allows Tibetans to live and work freely in the country, New Delhi has been mindful of Chinese sensibilities over the decades. However, China’s acts of aggression this year in eastern Ladakh has some in India wondering whether New Delhi should adopt a more active Tibet policy.

To that extent, India may consider a more coordinated approach with western nations, especially the US, on the critical issue of the successor to the 14th Dalai Lama. Tibetan culture and identity have been brutally suppressed by the Chinese Communist Party in the decades since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet.

But Tibetans both within Tibet and outside still have immense faith in the institution of the Dalai Lama. By imposing a ‘made in China’ Dalai Lama on an unwilling people, China seeks to exercise near-absolute control over Tibet and humiliate its people.

In 1995, Chinese authorities made the Dalai Lama’s choice for the successor of the Panchen Lama disappear. The Panchen Lama is the second most important religious figure in Tibet.

The Chinese government then appointed its own Panchen Lama. There are fears that China is now planning to appoint its own Dalai Lama.

The 14th Dalai Lama has made a few significant statements to thwart China’s plans, including the suggestion that he will appoint the 15th Dalai Lama himself and that the next Dalai Lama can be appointed outside Tibet (read India) given the extraordinary circumstances.

It may be time for New Delhi to work out a strategy in close consultation with the Tibetan government-in-exile and by keeping the US in the loop. Tibetans deserve to have a Dalai Lama whom they have faith in and who gives them hope.