In January, Sri Lanka’s voters kicked out President Mahinda Rajapaksa for being corrupt, repressive, and too close to China. The country’s new government, led by President Maithripala Sirisena, promptly drew attention and not a little admiration for halting a Chinese-led development project, citing environmental and other problems.
The project’s fate remains unclear. What is obvious is that Beijing will fight to retain its commercial and strategic interests in Sri Lanka. President Sirisena was showered with promises of aid during a visit to China in late March.
Beijing may also be close to scoring a victory on another matter to which it attaches great importance. An unnamed Sri Lankan official suggested that Colombo might refuse to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader. That’s highly significant, given that Sri Lanka is 70% Buddhist and home to a number of important Buddhist sites. “The Dalai Lama is very important,” the official said, “but the close relationship with China is more important and we have not changed our stance on ‘One China’ policy.”
Sri Lanka has a lot of things on its agenda, including long overdue national reconciliation following its bloody civil war, accounting for political prisoners, and establishing the rule of law. Deferring to Beijing’s demands over the Dalai Lama might seem a small price to pay to retain good relations with Beijing and at least some of its largesse.
It would be best for Sri Lanka’s new leaders, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickeremesinghe, to take a principled line on Tibet right from the start. Even a small country should be in charge of its own affairs, such as who may visit, and with whom its leaders will meet. Beijing cares desperately about how the world treats the Dalai Lama and Tibet. Receiving him is an important moral position, but also one that carries significant political capital. It will only become harder to turn this policy around once IF the wrong decision is taken.
Colombo should also correct its language on Tibet policy. The statement given by the unnamed official contained an important error. The concept of ‘one China’ refers to the U.S. decision to agree that Taiwan -- not Tibet -- is part of China and eventually abandon recognition for Chiang Kai-shek’s government in Taipei, to which the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) retreated in 1949.
Lodi Gyari, a former envoy of the Dalai Lama, explained why “one China” is a misnomer when it comes to Tibet in remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations in 2012:
No Tibetan government has ever claimed to be the government of China, so the application of the ‘one China’ policy to Tibet or for that matter, the PRC government’s ‘one China’ principle that stresses the inalienability of both Taiwan and mainland China as parts of a single ‘China’ — simply does not arise.
Yet, the PRC government vigorously pursues efforts to extend the applicability of ‘one China’ to Tibet and, in recent years, it has misled a number of governments into believing not only that the ‘one-China’ policy applies to Tibet, but that it restricts the extent to which their government officials can interact with Tibetan leaders in exile, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We believe that the intended effect of China’s initiative is to limit outside governments from playing a constructive role in promoting a mutually acceptable negotiated solution for Tibet. Indeed, by accepting the applicability of ‘one China’ to Tibet, governments are subtly aligning themselves with the Chinese position that the Dalai Lama is trying to ‘split’ China.
Gyari argued that foreign governments have “the duty out of self- interest and in the interest of global peace to promote a peaceful solution to the issue by engaging with both sides in the conflict.” Gyari’s full remarks appear here.
There is no historic basis for applying the “One China” policy to Tibet, and no legitimate purpose to denying the Dalai Lama a visa or refusing to engage with representatives of the democratically elected exile government. Speaking accurately about Tibet is necessary if there is to be a solution to problem that Beijing created by invading it in the 1950s. However, the price to Sri Lanka of adopting Beijing’s position on Tibet would be much higher.