Donald Trump and the US Congress, heeding the call of an odd alliance of the Religious Right and progressive human rights advocates, have imposed the threat of a US visa ban on any Chinese official deemed responsible for barring access to Tibet for US diplomats, journalists, and tourists. On December 19, Trump signed into law the "Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018," which previously passed the Senate and House unanimously. The law sent Sino-American relations back to the Cold War era.
The US law requires American diplomats, journalists and tourists to have the same level of access to the Tibet Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas as their Chinese counterparts enjoy in the US Other Tibetan areas include those former parts of Tibet that were cleaved off from Tibet and annexed to other Chinese provinces. These include Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan, and Gansu, which became "Tibetan autonomous areas" within the respective provinces.
Within 90 days of Trump's signature, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is to assess Americans' level of access to Tibet and issue a report to Congress. The report will include the identities of those Chinese officials responsible for banning Americans from Tibet. Pompeo will then issue a ban on US visas for those Chinese officials, barring them from entering the United States. Annually, the State Department must provide Congress with a list of US citizens blocked from entering Tibet.
The act had the strong support of Senator Marco Rubio (Republican-Florida). Rubio is also championing other US sanctions and visa bans for officials of Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. It was also pushed by Trump's Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, former Kansas Republican Governor Sam Brownback.
Brownback has also taken up the cause of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu in Sichuan province. China is concerned about such "charismatic" churches taking hold and serving American right-wing interests, which has already occurred in Brazil, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Taiwan, and South Korea.
Vice President Mike Pence, a fundamentalist Christian, who shares many of Brownback’s views, outlined the Trump administration’s aggressive stance with China over Tibet in an October 4, 2018 speech at the neo-conservative Hudson Institute in Washington. Pence criticized China over its treatment of Christians, Tibetans, and Muslim. It was no coincidence that the Hudson Institute followed up Pence’s speech by inviting Lobsang Sangay, the president of the “Tibetan government in-exile” in Dharamsala, to address the organization this past November.
On November 28, Pompeo re-designated China as a "country of particular concern” (CPC), pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act. Pompeo's re-designation cited China's "systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including against the Tibetan people." China's treatment of the Muslim Uighurs, who dominate China's Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region in western China, has also come in for sharp criticism by Pompeo's State Department.
China joins as a CPC, other countries similarly designated by the State Department. These include Pakistan, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Supporters of the Tibet access act likened it to the very dubious Magnitsky Act of 2012, which is routinely used by the US to sanction certain Russian leaders with asset freezes and visa bans. The Global Magnitsky Act of 2016 has been applied to, in addition to Russia, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Gambia, Myanmar, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry slammed the act, saying it "interferes in China’s domestic affairs with reckless disregard for facts, and goes against the basic norms of international relations." In response, China said it is prepared to deny visas to American officials.
At a time when China, India, Nepal, and Bhutan were discussing opening rail and road links between Tibet and the Indian sub-continent, the US law on Tibet could not have come at a worse time. For Nepal and Bhutan, Washington's re-ignition of the Cold War, about Tibet, brought back memories of the Central Intelligence Agency’s secret Tibetan guerilla war against China in the 1950s and 60s. The CIA trained Tibetan guerrillas in Nepal, some later parachuted into Tibet, to attack Chinese military targets.
Although Bhutan’s role in the CIA’s operations against China in Tibet have remained obscured, more information has come to light about the US role in plotting against Bhutan’s king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, in 1974. A series of plots to kill the Bhutanese king were traced back to the Central Tibetan Authority (CTA) in Dharamsala, India, which operated as a virtual government-in-exile for the Dalai Lama, after his exile from Tibet in 1959. The plots against Bhutan’s king were traced back to the CTA and the Dalai Lama’s older brother, Gyalo Thondup, who was on the CIA’s payroll. With the connivance of the CIA, the CTA hoped to annex Bhutan under its rule as “Free Tibet” territory. In other words, the CIA hoped to establish a “Himalayan Taiwan,” from which it could launch attacks on China.
There is another reason why the Trump administration is immersing itself into Tibetan affairs. Washington has said it will not recognize a Chinese-selected successor to the current 14th Dalai Lama, who is now 83 years old. A major tenet of Tibetan Buddhism is that when the current Dalai Lama dies, he is reincarnated in another person. China said it reserves the right to identify the reincarnated Dalai Lama and many Tibetan Buddhists believe that the selectee will be a person who is loyal to China.
Laura Stone, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs stated during a congressional hearing, that “religious decisions, should be made within religious organizations, that this isn't the role of the state.” The Tibetan cause has been taken up by Senator Cory Gardner (Republican-Colorado). There are old ties between Colorado and Tibet. During the Cold War, the CIA’s ST CIRCUS program saw Tibetan guerrillas trained at Camp Hale in Colorado.
Taking up the cause of Tibet by Washington will not only strain American relations with China but will be viewed as unwanted interference by both Nepal and Bhutan, as they seek closer economic relations with China.
As part of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), there are plans to extend the railway between Lhasa and Xigaze in Tibet to the Nepali capital of Kathmandu. The railway would be the first to cross the Nepal-China border.
Nepal, which is landlocked, has historically been forced to rely on India for external trade with the rest of the world. Much of Nepal's trade outside the sub-continent has been routed through Kolkata. A rail link to Lhasa would provide Nepal with more flexibility in its trade relations, opening the Chinese ports of Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang as alternatives.
Nepali relations with China have warmed since Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli of the unified Nepal Communist Party took power in February 2018. Nepal withdrew from a joint military exercise with India in September of this year. However, it did participate in a military exercise with China, dubbed "Sagarmatha Friendship," in Chengdu the same month.
If China is forced to increase security in Tibet as a result of the US Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, progress on the trans-Himalayan railway linking Lhasa to Kathmandu may be put in jeopardy. China is wary of some 20,000 Tibetan refugees who reside in Nepal, some strongly linked to the Tibetan government-in-exile in India.
Trump and his Republican Party have decided to re-launch a cold war atop the “roof of the world” in the Himalayas. The only victims of this misadventure will be the people of the region who desire unimpeded cross border travel and commerce between Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and Sikkim.