A Game Winning Piece? The Dalai Lama and Geopolitics of Tibet

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Andrew Schwartz: Welcome to the Asia Chessboard, the podcast that examines geopolitical dynamics in Asia and takes an inside look at the making of grand strategy. I'm Andrew Schwartz at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Hannah Fodale: This week, Mike is joined by Asia and human rights expert, Ellen Bork, to discuss the geopolitics of Tibet and what it means for the Asia chessboard. The two begin by discussing Tibet’s strategic significance in the region, including the influence of Tibetan Buddhism and China's strategic approach to its core interest. Bork also dives deeper into Tibet's relationships with its neighbors like India, and the transnational impact of the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama.

Mike Green: Welcome back to the Asia Chessboard. I'm Mike Green. We have a guest today who's going to help us understand the geopolitics of the Tibet issue. A lot of people look at His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, the repression of the Tibetan people and think this is an issue of religious freedom, human rights, spirituality, all of which are true, but it's also a profoundly geopolitical issue on the Asia chessboard. It goes to the heart of the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, the influence of His Holiness on Tibetan followers well beyond the Tibet autonomous region, as far as Mongolia, Siberia, Korea, the geography of the Tibetan plateau, water, military positioning. I first met His Holiness when I was working as the senior director for Asia in the White House and the meeting with the president Bush and--His Holiness has met every president since George Herbert Walker Bush-- was usually run in the residence of the White House so as not to look political, but was managed by the NSC.

Mike Green: And I had the opportunity to spend time with His Holiness and be there for his meeting with President Bush, multiple meetings, and profoundly powerful person in every respect. But I was really struck at how geopolitical these issues are. And I was reminded of my childhood when my brothers and I used to play board games, Avalon Hill games and so forth. And one kind of obscure game we played was called A Mighty Fortress. And it was a board game about the reformation in Europe. And you could have Prince Philip's navies, you could have the Ottoman empire's armies, you could have the Holy Roman empire as divisions, but if you had one piece on the board called Martin Luther and you rolled the right dice, the geopolitics would completely change. And you could dominate Europe through spiritual thought through religious conviction, through a revolutionary transformational way of thinking about the human condition and overwhelm navies and armies.

Mike Green: And that was what I was reminded of when I listened to His Holiness talk about Tibet. And then, later was démarched multiple times by the embassy for supporting His Holiness. And the fear in the Chinese diplomats’ eyes was very revealing about how powerful this unassuming spiritual leader is. So, it's about religious freedom, absolutely. It's about human rights, absolutely. But there's a very important geopolitical dimension. And to help us understand that, we've invited Ellen Bork. Ellen is a human rights lawyer with policy experience in the administration, State Department, but also on Senate Foreign Relations Committee with Asia expertise and led an exercise last year on scenarios for the reincarnation of His Holiness and what they mean, geopolitically, which we'll get to. But first, Ellen, welcome.

Ellen Bork: Thank you Mike.

Mike Green: And tell us how a Yale undergrad Georgetown law school student became a crusader for human rights and religious freedom in Asia.

Ellen Bork: Thank you so much for inviting me. I'm a fan of the Podcast. I came to Tibet in particular, actually having read John Avedon's book, In Exile from the Land of Snows. I'm not sure why I picked it up exactly, I clearly had something about the matter intrigued me. And since then, I've worked on it quite a bit. I had the good fortune to work for both senators, Connie Mack and Jesse Helms, who were both interested in Tibet. And as a staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was very much carrying out Senator Helms’ agenda, but a bi-partisan agenda on Tibet. There were a lot of people, I remember Senator Pell, Senator Simon, and frankly, and later we'll talk about vice-president, well, president now Biden, who was also there at that time when Tibet was getting a lot of attention, particularly in the connection with the MFN debate. So, that's really how I came to it. I trained as a lawyer. I practiced law briefly, but I was always drawn to human rights issues, but especially democracy issues.

Mike Green: We first met... I don't know if you remember this. When I was a grad student at Johns Hopkins SAIS. I think you were probably at Georgetown law school. I don't know if you remember this. You were a summer associate in my dad's law firm, Wald, Harkrader and Ross, which was kind of a small boutique firm that had a personality. They did a lot of pro bono and human rights work. And you would have been... I don't know what year at Georgetown then, second year maybe?

Ellen Bork: I think it was after my first year. I think it was Pepper, Hamilton and Scheetz.

Mike Green: Was it Pepper by then? Yeah. They were bought off by a big Philadelphia offer, but retained that kind of pro bono idealistic flavor. Did you, at that point in law school... You went to Georgetown so maybe you did, were you thinking you were going to get into policy rather than litigation or corporate law or something?

Ellen Bork: Actually I did. Before I went to law school, I worked for five years, including at the State Department, but in the Latin America Bureau. So, I very much saw myself returning to government in a legal capacity. I ended up practicing law for a little while and then went from there to the International Republican Institute. And it was pretty clear to me, although law is fascinating, that I really had more of a policy and a democracy bent. So, I took that path.

Mike Green: And the International Republican or IRI is now run by Dan Twining does work basically on the front lines of democracy, supporting political parties and freedom of the press and so forth. Did you work on Asia when you were IRI?

Ellen Bork: I did. Actually, that was where I worked most on Hong Kong. And I think that's what led me ultimately to the Hill and Senator Mack's office. So, I spent quite a lot of time working on Hong Kong rule of law issues. I just mentioned, Governor Thornburgh just passed away. He really played a leading role in IRI's efforts to work on rule of law in Hong Kong and we visited there. I forget exactly what year, maybe '94. So yeah, I definitely did Asia there and Cambodia. I remember visiting Cambodia just as it was beginning to recover and was really sobered by what they had to do to restore a legal community, legal institutions there. And IRI was very involved in that early on.

Mike Green: So, if you're worried about the state of democracy in Asia, human rights and the connection to geopolitics, it's a smorgasbord. You could look at Mongolia, you could look at Cambodia, you could look at the coup in Thailand, now Myanmar. But you've really focused on Tibet, which is in some ways furthest away. It's strategically hard for a lot of Americans to grapple with. We're a maritime power. We take a Mahanian maritime approach. We think about how we shape geopolitics from the sea. You can't do that in Tibet as easily, unless climate change gets really bad. So, it's really remote and yet it's really important. So, tell us about how you see the state of affairs in Tibet right now, in terms of Hanization of the Japan autonomous region, the spiritual freedom of the Tibetan people, support for His Holiness and the general state of play.

Ellen Bork: Tibet is under constant and increasing pressure at all times. The PRC always had a strategic approach to Tibet. Mao was quoted in 1949 saying Tibet is a small population, but we must control it. And from there, the party has worked assiduously to extend its control to exploit Tibet’s resources to control its population. There are a lot of slogans and phrases associated with controlling the rural population, concentrating it in ways that the party can control extending surveillance, really undermining aspects of Tibetan's national identity, including language, which Human Rights Watch has done a lot of work on. And we see now that, although this is a constant, Xi Jinping has really accelerated a lot of this as part of his desire to control it, frankly, and maybe later we'll talk about the ways in which Tibet has an international agenda for the party as well.

Ellen Bork: So, it's very tough. Xi has announced, I think, a five-year plan to Sinicize all religions and Tibetan Buddhism is definitely under extreme pressure as a result. The Communist Party views His Holiness as a threat and describes him as a splittist and subversive, makes it absolutely impossible to engage in the Dalai Lama's top agenda item is dialogue. But that is not possible considering any number of factors, including that the party is engaged in a constant project of backdating its territorial claims to Tibet so that it's almost impossible to pinpoint some element of control anymore in the party's view, Elliot Sperling did a lot of work on this before he passed away. There is a lot of—I mean, mythmaking just makes it sound too benign—there is an effort to totally control and eliminate a separate Tibetan identity and history.

Mike Green: So, what Xi Jinping is trying to do to Tibetan culture and religion is part of a pattern. Obviously it's also about Xingjiang, it's about Mongolia. It's about Hong Kong and of course Taiwan. And it's a problem because it's a form of coercion and repression that is being repeated abroad. So, in a way what's happening in Tibet although it’s inside continental Asia is part of a pattern that Australians would recognize from the boycotts against Australia by China and so forth. But the Chinese have focused on Tibet as one of their core interests. I remember I went to India in 2008 on a project, brought the family and was going to see His Holiness to get my son, who was then one, blessed. I'm Unitarian, so we have a very open-minded view of paths to redemption. And it was a wonderful experience by the way.

Mike Green: And the Chinese found out and démarched me, demanded why I was there. I was doing John McCain's foreign policy work then, so they were worried I was going to plant the McCain flag in Dharan Salar or something. But the Chinese DCM insisted on seeing me. I knew him in Delhi. And he told me that for the Central Committee and for the Central Military Commission in Beijing, the top three core issues were Xingjian, Tibet and Taiwan. And this was 2008. Tibet was the most important and most threatening to their national security. 1.4 billion people, one of the largest militaries in the world, incredible apparatus. Why so afraid? Part of it has to be history. I mean the Tibetan Empire was enormous 1100 years ago. And so, the Tibetan influence culture has spread across much of what is now the People's Republic of China. That's got to be part of it.

Mike Green: The British used the Tibet card against China at the turn of the century, the Japanese sent spies into Tibet before the Sino-Japanese war. You know the famous CIA stars of the fallen, there was a book written about them, at least the first dozen. The first star, the first person killed in the line of duty as a CIA agent was apparently someone who was running guns to the Tibetans during the Chinese Civil War. So, there are... I'm not defending what Beijing has done, but there are some real historical insecurities, but it's still kind of hard to understand why they are so afraid. Do you think that Tibet's almost an existential threat to Chinese legitimacy? Is it that severe?

Ellen Bork: In a certain way, yes, in a certain way, no. I mean, the current Chinese government is absolutely committed to controlling it and it's difficult to see what actual threat internally or externally they could possibly face right now. I think it's a crisis of legitimacy. I think they're fully aware of the lack of legitimacy both historically and morally at this point. I always like to point out that Tibet is a taboo issue. It's something that if you talk to Chinese dissidents, which is tough now, they really can't talk about it. But the Charter 08, the democracy blueprint that came out in 2008 and led to the prosecution of Liu Xiaobo. It didn't use the word Tibet, but it talked about Tibet obliquely and all issues of... They talked about a federation of minority areas. I've got the language off.

Ellen Bork: But it's very clear that among liberally minded, democracy minded, Chinese intellectuals, nationalist views on Tibet have faded among that camp. And I think the Party is aware of that and it's very sensitive for someone like Liu Xiaobo, as he did in essays to advance the idea that what really mattered and what would solve the problem of Tibet was democracy. And that's where I think this extreme sensitivity comes into the picture.

Mike Green: You mentioned earlier, the international dimension of China's Tibet strategy. Could you say more about that?

Ellen Bork: Sure. I think that the Party... Again, they're preparing for the reincarnation, which we'll talk about, they want to be deferred to as an authority on reincarnation and on Tibetan Buddhism, generally. The Party uses Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism in different communities around their periphery as an instrument of influence. It sometimes dovetails or overlaps with the Belt and Road. They seek to appropriate historic Buddhist sites and to then either control them directly or indirectly, but to be able to project their attitudes, their views on His Holiness, on Tibetan Buddhism and more important, the Party which they sort of cram into the issue of religion, which is pretty bizarre, but that's an element of their approach. So, I would just say, you mentioned core interests that the PRC identified Tibet, Taiwan and Xingjiang, initially as their three core interests and they were territorial. And I think in the United States and elsewhere, this wasn't taken very seriously at a time when Taiwan was beyond their grasp. Tibet was under their control as was Xingjiang.

Ellen Bork: And so, this didn't seem to really have that much significance, but now we see that it's a real kind of departure point for projecting influence and making demands both in their bilateral relationships and within international organizations. So, Tibet becomes, along with a couple of other issues, a sort of cutting edge or an avenue for influence. And I think it's very much a part of their assault or their attempt to advance anti-democratic norms, to warp the Human Rights Council so that Tibet can't be discussed in a free way, witnesses can't come forward. And so, it's a cudgel that is often used to bludgeon liberal democracies. And so long as those countries have seen their ability to deal with Tibet only in terms of making nice to Beijing, let's remove it as an irritant. That was a phrase that you must've come across in your work in government. So, long as we don't upset Beijing over Tibet, we can help it. And that's clearly wrong. And in the meantime, it's grown as a matter on which Beijing can achieve more influence around the world.

Mike Green: Yeah. I mean, I can tell you, at least in my time in the NSC president Bush, candidly raised Tibet in almost every meeting. And the problem with these meetings is its sequential translation. So, you mention two or three things, it gets translated and then the other side chooses what it will or will not respond to and they usually didn't respond. Although, I do remember Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing lecturing Condi on the Tibet problem, then claiming that the PLA was like the Union Army sweeping through the South, freeing the slaves because at one point Tibet had slavery. It was a pretty odd rebuttal.

Ellen Bork: Can I just say something right there?

Mike Green: Yeah.

Ellen Bork: I think the ways in which Tibet is raised with Beijing is one matter. The greater concern I think, is finding ways to collaborate with other like-minded nations to resist the Tibet agenda. I don't expect any Chinese diplomat to take a step backward in response to a meeting in which Tibet is raised. So, it's really a question of responding to those aggressive assertions of their interests in international organizations, through development projects, frankly through cultivating stronger democracies that have not only a good position on Tibet, but are able to withstand Chinese pressure. And that's... We can talk about Mongolia, for example, that's a really key issue.

Mike Green: We'll get to the neighbors in a second, I think we should talk about India, Mongolia. But your point is absolutely right and your reference to the core interests, I think you're talking about the November 2009 joint statement between Barack Obama and Hu Jintao. where the U.S. side agreed that it would respect China's core interests in Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan. And in the months before that first summit, between Obama and Hu Jintao, Obama was advised not to see His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, so as not to rattle things with China before they had locked in a mutual understanding. Huge, huge geopolitical mistake because the message to the rest of the world, if the U.S. Isn't going to stand up for Tibet, the message to the rest of the world and for the Tibetans is just devastating.

Mike Green: Why should Norway or Australia meet with His Holiness, support Tibetan dissidence, if the U.S. isn't willing to take some risks. So, I think most people involved in that decision in the Obama administration would privately admit it was a big mistake. And I don't think you're going to see that happen with the Biden administration. We'll see. I think the whole debate has changed. Can you say something about India, Mongolia, the neighbors, what's at stake? We talked a lot about what's at stake for China. I think you did a great job helping us understand why this is so geopolitically important for Beijing. What's at stake for India, Mongolia, other countries in the region?

Ellen Bork: Well, it's interesting that Tibet... If it weren’t for the occupation of Tibet, the Sino-Indian border issues would not exist. Tibet was a gigantic buffer, India and Tibet have historic cultural and religious affinities and even shared backgrounds from important periods in history with regard to Buddhism, and India is now as we see increasingly under pressure across the border. I think people don't always... it's as clearly a matter of geopolitical rivalry, but Tibet is really right in there. And Tibet was a factor in the 1962 war. Mao, possibly... Well, erroneously saw a threat to Tibet from India and acted accordingly. And that was an episode that no one wants to repeat. And then, India is now rapidly trying to prepare, should Tibet, and conceivably even the reincarnation issue, be used as a pretext for more violence or an invasion or something like that.

Ellen Bork: I don't want to overstate that. I don't know that it's the only factor involved, but it really is there. And people should understand that from the Indian point of view, in particular, they see Tibet as a real barometer of their relations with China and that Chinese leaders now describe parts of Indian territory as Southern Tibet. And they face a real challenge to that. Mongolia, I think it's not so much a military threat in most people's minds, it's an economic one. And in 2016, Mongolia’s Tibetan Buddhist country, except for the fact that some of it's faded as a result of its history under Soviet domination. But it's a very important factor there and there's a close relationship historically between Mongolia and Tibet. In 2016, His Holiness visited Mongolia and as a result, the Chinese shut down the border. People don't focus quite as much on the fact that while he was there, he was performing a particular pastoral duty related to the succession of their patriarch.

Ellen Bork: And that I think people should understand that when they hear about China's great trying to dream of national rejuvenation and their desire to restore themselves to a kind of Imperial primacy in the region, Tibetan Buddhism is a kind of historic element in that. And they don't want to see anybody else, including His Holiness, exercise authority over Tibetan Buddhist traditions. So, they're the sort of economic and military components to the kind of aggression that China might use related to the Tibet issues.

Mike Green: So, that's just where the reincarnation question comes into play, of course. China has said under his law, the reincarnated Dalai Lama will be decided or approved by Beijing, basically by the Chinese Communist Party, which Marx must be rolling over in his grave. There have been hints even from His Holiness that the next Dalai Lama could be discovered in India. Which would raise again all these geopolitical questions. I spent two summers ago in Mongolia, one of the biggest concerns for the government there is reincarnation of the Dalai Lama in Mongolia, which would be very popular among the Mongolian people. And because of the history, you just mentioned China setting off the border from the Dalai Lama just visiting, a huge national security headache for the government. So, it's a transnational issue if you will. And you looked at different scenarios at Project 2049 Institute and called in experts and kind of, I don't want to say wargamed it, because it wasn't a war, but you did scenario exercises. Tell us some of your findings from that effort?

Ellen Bork: A bunch of us, maybe 15 or 20 people got together and kind of grouped ourselves as countries or Tibet, India, the United States and China, and tried to think through what would happen when His Holiness passes away. What we should be prepared for, what China would do inside and internationally. Essentially, we just came down to the fact that the reincarnation is a matter of strategic competition, that it has implications for China's international standing and frankly, for the standing of the world's democracies, not only in terms of supporting religious freedom, but in recognizing, as I mentioned, the ways in which Tibetan Buddhism and the institution of the Dalai Lama are… Beijing hopes to subvert them and use them. So, that was really what we did. And it's not so easy except to prevent Beijing from doing what it is announced it will do.

Ellen Bork: As you know, they have revived an imperial ritual, drawing of lots from the golden urn and in another very high level, prominent reincarnation snatching away the authentic Panchen Lama and installing an imposter who is playing an increasing role in international Buddhist fora that they have created or... He's now traveled to Thailand, for example. So, that's significant. The Congress has definitely elevated the importance of this issue in the recently adopted Tibetan Policy Support Act. So, it's now American policy at the highest level to resist the efforts to manipulate and support the reincarnation. I think that's very valuable. I think it has to be done in connection with the Europeans and Asian allies in order to have... You can't beat something with nothing, right? You have to really be prepared. And I'm optimistic that that's going to be meaningful.

Ellen Bork: I think now it'd be a good point to mention that the Dalai Lama, when he outlined possibilities for his reincarnation in a statement in 2011, and I urge everyone to look at it on his website because he can explain better than anybody else, the concepts involved in the reincarnation, but that was done in tandem with a political move, which was his transfer of political power to the elected exile government. And people should see that democracy for the future of Tibet is every bit as much of his legacy as is whatever he does with regard to his own reincarnation.

Mike Green: So, Ellen and I have both been deeply interested in Tibet, but neither of us is pretending to be an expert on Tibetan Buddhism or reincarnation. There is a book coming out this year, I think. The memoirs of Lodi Gyari and I've read the manuscript and they're fascinating. And Lodi was, as you know, the principle envoy for His Holiness, dealing with China, but also with the U.S. and other friends. And his manuscript is just phenomenal. And it explains for the layperson what reincarnation means in a Tibetan context and in a Buddhist context and also what it's like negotiating with the PRC when you represent His Holiness. So, people who are interested in this should stand by, the book will be coming out later this year, I think. It's in production now. It looks like the most likely scenario is we're going to have two Dalai Lamas.

Mike Green: It's almost sort of the spiritual parallel to 5G or AI or Belt and Road where you're going to have a Chinese system that a lot of countries have to accept because they're weak and under Chinese pressure or need Chinese economic assistance. And then, you're going to have... And that will be the Chinese Dalai Lama, sort of the Panchen Lama equivalent. And then, this seems to be the most likely scenario. And then, you will have the Dalai Lama chosen through Tibetan tradition, who will be almost certainly not in China and will be recognized by followers of Tibetan Buddhism who live in free societies. Does that sound like the most likely scenario to you? Just kind of a splinter net in religious terms.

Ellen Bork: It does sound like that. And I think it's interesting that His Holiness has allowed for the possibility of an emanation, which would mean that he could emanate in a living being adult while he's still alive, which is kind of intriguing. So yes and frankly, if he's allowed that as a possibility, I suppose that the Chinese might also allow that as a possibility.

Mike Green: So, that's the most likely scenario then there's the obviously need to keep the legitimacy of the real Dalai Lama, front and center so that someday when Tibetan Buddhists in China, which by the way, includes many Han Chinese by all accounts, that when that day comes, they will have the actual Dalai Lama who can return to Lhasa, who can return to Beijing. And so, keeping that legitimacy should be a really important thing for anyone who cares about freedom and stability and rule of law, not to mention religious freedom. But what do we do to avoid the worst case scenario? Your game looked at the possibility that China might become more belligerent, that it could fuel clashes with India, challenges with Mongolia. Before the reincarnation, before this happens, what can the U.S. or other allies do to bend the arc of history towards a more benign outcome and avoid an actual clash or more oppression or something because of the reincarnation process. Can we get purchase on this problem?

Ellen Bork: I think it can't be a mistake for the United States, its allies to come into a united position of endorsing the integrity of Tibetan controlled, Tibetan Buddhism and reincarnation process. And in effect that's happening. I think it needs to go much further into Europe. I think it's a question of changing the posture from one of viewing Tibet so completely as a fait accompli, which of course the invasion is, but the ways in which the PRC continues to use the issue internationally. I think that the international community can stand up against that and can be less vulnerable to manipulation on all of these points, especially when democracies connect this and see Tibet's relationship to China's assault on liberal democratic values and efforts to assert different counter norms that favor it and its authoritarian vision. And I think it's a little bit of a question of just changing the dynamic, getting off our back foot, being more assertive, because it is essentially being more assertive in pursuit of our own values of religious freedom and universal norms. So, I'd like to see that shift. And I'm optimistic about that actually.

Mike Green: Yeah, I am too. I don't know if you saw the survey we did at CSIS on China policy. We surveyed the American public, and then we did a survey of international relations thought leaders in the U.S., Asia and Europe. And we asked about Tibet and we asked how much risk should the U.S. or the international community take in order to advance the cause of religious freedom in Tibet. And we asked on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 means take any risk or high level of risk and 1 meant don't take risk, isn't worth it. And the mean varied a little bit between countries like Japan or Europe or the U.S, but it was six or seven on that scale. And there was a lot of convergence on this. And what was interesting in the U.S was we broke it down by business labor, national security, university presidents.

Mike Green: There was not a huge difference. Business leaders were willing to take risks for Tibet. Now it wasn't 10, it was about 6 or 6.5 or 7, but they were willing to take some risk. And I think our survey showed that there are similar views in Japan, interestingly, and in Western Europe and parts of Eastern Europe. There are other voices who would happily not have this be an issue. The auto companies in Germany, manufacturers in Japan, would happily have this go away. But the foreign policy thought leaders recognize what's at stake, it seems. And that's a pretty good basis for the Biden administration and Congress to start building some common effort on this. I think they'll find there's an open door to coordinating more on how we handle this issue. And your work is really helpful because it puts in clear terms, what's at stake. This is not an issue that we can just ignore. It's an issue that has real geopolitical importance.

Ellen Bork: I remember what you said, in I think 2012 at a panel discussion about Tibet as a demonstration effect in the region. People are aware of this. I think, often at a certain level it's seen as a niche issue that requires occasional expression of concern and alarm, but I think you put your finger on it, that there are people in the region in particular, still see this as a matter of the international character of the PRC and something that they have to worry about still.

Mike Green: It tells us a lot. It's different from Hong Kong. It's different from Taiwan. It's different from China's problems with Australia or European countries. But it's similar in the sense that it tells us a lot about the character of the PRC. And I think that's why there's a basis for building some common effort and your work with this scenario exercise really shows what's at stake. So, Ellen Bork thanks for joining us on Asia Chessboard, we'll stay tuned.

Ellen Bork: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.

Andrew Schwartz: Thanks for listening. For more on strategy and the Asia programs’ work, visit the CSIS website at csis.org and click on the Asia program page.