Sino-EU ties hijacked by Tibet issue
By Jian Junbo
SHANGHAI - This month, the European Union (EU) parliament passed a resolution
on the Tibet issue, urging the Chinese government to resume dialogue with the
Tibetan spiritual leader in exile, the Dalai Lama, for "real autonomy for
Tibet". However, a Chinese government spokesperson immediately rejected this,
saying the call was interference in China's "internal affairs".
Not only the EU, but also all of its member states acknowledge that the Tibet
Autonomous Region is a part of China, and they all adhere to the "one-China"
policy, at least according to their laws and official statements.
This raises the question of why the EU parliament would endorse
such a resolution when it was bound to be rejected by China, especially in the
current economic climate, when the EU wants to build closer relations with
Firstly, the issue of human rights will always carry weight in the EU's foreign
policy, and the Tibet issue fits into this category, that is, China's Tibet
policy is perceived as human rights abuse. Moreover, the EU parliament passed
the resolution on March 10, the 50th anniversary of the failed Tibetan armed
uprising against Chinese rule, which ended with the Dalai Lama's fleeing Tibet
for India, where he resides to this day.
So, for the EU parliament, it was a convenient date to bring up the Tibet
issue. By doing this the EU could display its image of "normative power", while
also showing that it has the resources and will to spread its Western values to
other countries even when the world economy is in recession.
With the rise of the co-decision procedure in the EU, which places its council
and parliament on an equal footing, the EU's parliament can to a certain extent
impose its will on other institutions, especially on its executive institution,
the EU Commission. In this sense, the parliament's Tibet resolution reflects
the EU's new structure.
Thrusting European values onto other countries is a longstanding strategy of
the EU. By doing this it hopes to strengthen its soft power in the world and
enhance its independence from the hegemonic umbrella of the United States. With
the US suffering from the financial crisis, the EU has taken a chance to speak
louder, to spread its soft power in competition with the US, and to strengthen
its status in the international community.
From this perspective, it is understandable why the EU has criticized China's
domestic affairs in fields like human rights and religious policies, and on the
Tibet issue in particular.
The EU's criticism toward China is therefore more part of this long-term
strategy, to expand its soft power, than out of any real concern over human
rights in Tibet. For the EU, no other human-rights issue has a better leverage
on China than Tibet. The Tibet issue has ethnic, religious and cultural
dimensions, and led by the Dalai Lama, exiled Tibetans are well organized in
their opposition to Beijing.
It is exactly because of the sensitivity of the Tibet issue that Beijing
carefully guards itself against what it sees as foreign intervention,
particularly after it became common knowledge that the US Central Intelligence
Agency had a hand behind the armed Tibetan rebellion in 1959.
From China's perspective, there are historic reasons to reject the EU's
criticism. The EU parliament has passed anti-Chinese resolutions in the past
concerning human rights, arms sales and Taiwan. The recent resolution regarding
the Tibet issue was so sensitive that the Chinese government had to oppose it.
In principle, anything that happens in Tibet is China's domestic affair. The EU
parliament's resolution is interference in Chinese sovereignty and therefore
poses a challenge to the Chinese government's authority. Since its founding,
the People's Republic of China (PRC) has regarded non-intervention in another
country's internal affairs as a sacred principle of foreign relations.
As an ancient country but also a modern nation in the making, China's strict
adherence to this equality of nations is easily understood, as it is the very
foundation for the independence of a developing country. As such, China
strongly opposes any kind of interference in its domestic affairs, seeing them
as a violation of its sovereignty.
China views the Tibet issue in terms of sovereignty, so will never allow it to
be internationalized. For China, "a sovereignty issue is not open to
negotiation [with any foreign country]", as late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping
Beijing fears foreign support like the EU parliament's Tibet resolution will
encourage exiled Tibetans, led by the Dalai Lama, to advance their cause.
Beijing rejects the Dalai Lama's demands for the "real autonomy" of Tibet on
Firstly, the Dalai Lama wants a greater Tibetan region to cover all
Tibetan-inhabited areas including the whole of Tibet, Qinghai province and
parts of Sichuan and Gansu provinces. This would take a quarter of China's
total land area. In history, no Dalai Lama as Tibetan god-king has ever ruled
such a huge region.
Secondly, Beijing sees the demand for "real autonomy" as an attempt to restore
the serf system that existed before the 1950s when the Dalai Lama was god-king.
This is why Beijing has rejected any attempt to seek virtual independence or
semi-independence of a greater Tibet.
Beijing can never give in, as if the Dalai Lama gets what he wants, other
ethnic minorities, such as Uyghurs in Xinjiang, would be encouraged to demand
the same. The consequences would be disastrous for the central government.
The conflict lies in the EU viewing Tibet as human-rights issue, while the
Chinese government sees it as a sovereignty issue. The EU is using the Tibet
issue to spread its values and enhance its soft power in the international
community, while China opposes this and worries about other political fields,
such as the unity of Chinese territory.
Both for China and the European Union, this confrontation will undermine the
base of good bilateral relations in the long run.
A good way to ease tensions would be to set the Tibet issue aside from
bilateral relations between China and the EU and its member states. To allow
these strategic partnerships to be hijacked by the Tibet issue shows a lack of
political wisdom and would jeopardize bilateral cooperation in such important
areas as economy, technology and global affairs.
It is unlikely the EU will change its strategy of value expansion, but this
could take the form of more useful and reasonable approaches, such as informal
talks. China will never accept formal dialogue with the EU and its members over
the Tibet issue.
If the EU does not have the capacity to internationalize the Tibet issue - this
tactic will deeply harm European interests in the end - the EU must not attempt
to do so. The US does somehow successfully "internationalize" the Taiwan issue
to a certain degree, but the Tibet issue is quite different from Taiwan. In
short, the EU may need to find a more constructive approach toward the Tibet
The EU ought to respect Chinese sovereignty and stop trying to intervene in
Tibet's affairs through a unilateralist approach. Although China will reject
formal talks with the EU on Tibet, it is likely to listen to its suggestions if
the EU and its members can deal with the issue from a friendly and constructive
approach that would not be considered as intervention in domestic affairs.
Chinese people always hope their friends can save their "face".
A constructive rather than an unilateralist approach to deal with the Tibet
issue and even other bilateral quarrels between these two powers is a better
option for the European Union and its member countries, by doing this the EU
could enhance its strategic partnership with China, a rising power in the
Dr Jian Junbo is assistant professor of Institute of International
Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China.