The Strategic Importance of Tibet
About This Event

In March 2008, Tibetan monks marched peacefully to commemorate the forty-ninth anniversary of an uprising against Chinese rule. When Chinese security forces began arresting monks, these marches turned into vocal protests and riots in which a number of Tibetans and Han Chinese were killed. The Chinese authorities responded harshly, killing Listen to Audio

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more than two hundred Tibetans and detaining thousands more, according to the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan government-in-exile. Nearly one year later, Tibet, now largely closed off from the outside world, remains under a tight security lockdown. As Tibetans now commemorate not only last year's events, but also the fiftieth anniversary of the Dalai Lama's departure from Tibet, it is important to consider the region's future. Human rights abuses and the question of Tibet's political status remain important issues for Tibetans themselves, but also have implications for China's external relations. In particular, Tibet remains a potential flashpoint in China's relationship with India, home to the Central Tibetan Administration.

Will China maintain the status quo for the foreseeable future? Will the resumption of negotiations between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama’s representatives eventually lead to greater autonomy for Tibet? What is the strategic importance of Tibet, especially to India and the United States? Addressing these and other questions will be Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama’s chief negotiator; Michael J. Green, a former director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council; and Daniel Twining, a former foreign policy adviser to Senator John McCain who served recently on the State Department's policy planning staff with responsibility for South Asia and regional issues in East Asia.

Event Summary

WASHINGTON, APRIL 3, 2009--Tibet's history is marked by "tragic memories, unhealthy relations, ill treatment, [and] brutalization of the Tibetans by the Chinese," Lodi Gyari, the special envoy of the Dalai Lama, said at a March 26 AEI event on the strategic importance of Tibet. The Dalai Lama has been campaigning for greater autonomy for Tibet and an improvement in the human rights situation there since 1959. Speaking before the fiftieth anniversary of the Dalai Lama's flight to India, Gyari noted the achievements of the Tibetan people in their struggle against Chinese rule. Most remarkably, in the face of "one of the most ruthless, most powerful nations on this earth," the Dalai Lama and his supporters have kept the question of Tibet's status alive for the past fifty years. Tibetans in exile have also managed to establish a "fully functioning democratic system," Gyari said, that, with support from the authorities in Beijing, could be transplanted to Tibet proper.

According to Mike Green, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor at Georgetown University, this is easier said than done, as leaders in Beijing rank Tibet as their primary security concern. The Chinese government worries that granting political autonomy to Tibet will undermine China's sovereignty. With Tibet's historic land ties to other parts of modern-day China, China's leaders fear that granting concessions to Tibet will jeopardize the legitimacy of Beijing's control elsewhere in the People's Republic. Moreover, the Chinese Communist Party recognizes that it cannot effectively control religion, and its political leaders feel threatened by the Tibetan spiritual leader.

There are international implications resting on the question of Tibet as well. According to Dan Twining, a senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund, Tibet has historically served as a buffer between China and India. With China's annexation of Tibet in the 1950s, that buffer was erased and Sino-Indian border disputes arose. China has now based military forces in Tibet that can be quickly deployed to the border regions. These forces include missiles, some of which India suspects are nuclear-armed. India, for its part, continues to provide a safe haven to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. Tibet is "a strategic flashpoint in Asia" and, for Sino-Indian relations, a "simmering dispute . . . that could turn hot quite quickly," Twining said. "The possibility of a rapid series of events that leads to a limited military conflict is very real."


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Speaker biographies

Dan Blumenthal joined AEI in November 2004 as a resident fellow in Asian studies. He has served on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission since 2005, serving as vice chairman in 2007, and as a member of the Academic Advisory Board for the Congressional U.S.-China Working Group. Previously, Mr. Blumenthal was senior director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs during the first George W. Bush administration. In addition to writing for AEI's Asian Outlook series, he has written articles and op-eds for the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, National Review, and numerous edited volumes. He is currently working on a manuscript that will examine divides within the China policymaking community.

Michael J. Green is a senior adviser and holds the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is also an associate professor of international relations at Georgetown University. He served as special assistant to the president for national security affairs and senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council (NSC) from January 2004 to December 2005. He joined the NSC in April 2001 as director of Asian affairs with responsibility for Japan, Korea, and Australia/New Zealand. From 1997 to 2000, he was senior fellow for Asian security at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he directed the Independent Task Force on Korea and study groups on Japan and security policy in Asia. He served as senior adviser in the Office of Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Department of Defense in 1997 and as consultant to the same office until 2000. From 1995 to 1997, he was a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses, and from 1994 to 1995, he was an assistant professor of Asian studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, where he remained a professorial lecturer until 2001. Mr. Green speaks fluent Japanese and spent over five years in Japan working as a staff member of the National Diet, as a journalist for Japanese and American newspapers, and as a consultant for U.S. business. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Aspen Strategy Group and is vice chair of the congressionally mandated Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission. He serves on the advisory boards of the Center for a New American Security and Australian American Leadership Dialogue.

Lodi Gyari was born in 1949 in Nyarong, Eastern Tibet, where he received a traditional monastic education. Mr. Gyari and his family fled from Tibet to India in 1959. Realizing that Tibetans need to publicize their struggle to the world, he became an editor for the Tibetan Freedom Press and founded the Tibetan Review, the first English-language journal published by Tibetans in exile. Mr. Gyari was one of the founding members of the Tibetan Youth Congress, an organization of over ten thousand members. He served as president of the congress in 1975. Mr. Gyari was elected to the Assembly of Tibetan People’s Deputies, the Tibetan Parliament in exile, and subsequently became its chairman. He then served as deputy cabinet minister with responsibilities for the Council for Religious Affairs and the Department of Health. In 1988, he became senior cabinet minister for the Department of Information and International Relations (Foreign Ministry.) Currently, he is the special envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Mr. Gyari is the lead person designated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to lead negotiations with the Chinese government. Mr. Gyari is also the executive chairman of the Board of the International Campaign for Tibet, an independent Washington-based human rights advocacy group.

Daniel Twining is senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). During the George W. Bush administration, he served as a member of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's policy planning staff, with responsibility for South Asia and regional issues in East Asia. He previously worked for over a decade for Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), including as his foreign policy adviser in the Senate. Mr. Twining has also been the Fulbright/Oxford Scholar at Oxford University, a Transatlantic Fellow and director of foreign policy at GMF, and a staff member of the U.S. Trade Representative. His work on South and East Asia and U.S. foreign policy has been published in newspapers, magazines, and peer-reviewed academic journals in the United States, Europe, and Asia.


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