US engagement with Nepal’s Tibetan refugees infuriating China

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

US engagement with Nepal’s Tibetan refugees infuriating China

Some political leaders, ex-diplomats, and bureaucrats criticized the government for allowing her to see Tibetan refugees, saying that it violated Nepal’s One-China policy | Photo: AMN Archives

An American diplomat’s visit to Nepal this past week has created ripples in Nepal’s political and diplomatic circles following her meetings with some Tibetan refugees.

On May 21, Urza Zeya, the US Under-Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, who is also the special coordinator for Tibetan issues, visited the Tibetan refugee camp in Jawalakhel, Lalitpur. Later that day she also went to Kathmandu’s Boudha, home to a large number of Tibetan refugees. 

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kathmandu said it was unaware of Zeya meeting Tibetan refugees. But such a meeting here was expected, as Zeya had come to Nepal from India where she had also met refugee leaders as well as the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader.

Some political leaders, ex-diplomats, and bureaucrats criticized the government for allowing her to see Tibetan refugees, saying that it violated Nepal’s One-China policy. They were of the view that increased American intervention on Tibetan issues in Nepal could sour Kathmandu’s ties with Beijing.

Foreign relations experts, however, say Zeya’s visit to India and Nepal doesn’t indicate a change in the old US policy on Tibetan refugees.  

Upendra Gautam, general secretary at China Study Center-Nepal, says America’s policy on Tibetan refugees remains unchanged.

“There could be some changes in presentation but America’s core agenda is engagement with Nepal on Tibet,” he says. “Zeya’s recent visit may be an effort to convey the message that this policy remains intact.”

However, the US-China dispute over the selection of the Dalai Lama’s successor has made the issue prickly.

The verbal war between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan, Tibet, and human rights is escalating. Additionally, there is a pressure on the Biden administration to come clean on global human rights issues. Some American Senators are even urging Biden to invite the Dalai Lama to the White House.

As Tibetan issues fall under Zeya’s brief, say experts, it is not uncommon for her to visit Dharamshala, India, or Nepal’s Tibetan community. 

Gautam says it is up to our leaders to decide what exactly the country’s commitment to One-China entails.

The Biden administration had appointed Zeya as a special coordinator for Tibetan issues in December 2021. She has been tasked with “promoting substantive dialogue” between China and the Dalai Lama. Her main responsibility is to protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the Tibetan people. 

“She [Zeya] will promote respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Tibetans,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had said during her appointment, “including their freedom of religion or belief, and will support efforts to preserve their distinct historical, linguistic, cultural, and religious heritage.”

As a Tibetan issue coordinator, this was her first visit to India and Nepal.

However, this is not a new post created by the US. The coordinator’s office, which is within the State Department, was established by the Tibetan Policy Act of 2002.

In her meeting with high-level government officials, Zeya and her delegation reportedly asked Nepal to help preserve “the distinct religious, linguistic, and cultural identities” of Tibetans living in Nepal. She also urged Nepal to respect Tibetan refugees’ right to peaceful protest.

Nepali officials, however, told the visiting US delegates that Tibetan refugees are being supported on humanitarian grounds, and that Nepal cannot provide them all the rights.

The US stand on Tibetan refugees in Kathmandu is articulated in its annual human rights report prepared by the State Department. In it, Nepal is accused of continuing to limit the Tibetan community’s freedom of expression through attempts to stop Tibetans from celebrating culturally important events.  

“Most Tibetan refugees who lived in the country, particularly those who arrived after 1990 or turned 16 after 1995, did not have documentation, nor did their locally born children,” the report says.

It further says that the Tibetan refugees are unable to legally obtain business licenses, driver’s licenses, bank accounts, or own property, and that some refugees resort to bribery to obtain these services.

The report also says that Nepal Police routinely detains Tibetans and raids the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office. 

Zeya reportedly raised these issues in her meetings with the Nepali officials.

Nepal is preparing to provide identity cards to the Tibetan refugees, but this plan has been met with strong resistance from China.

Beijing fears that the current “West-friendly” government in Kathmandu could allow refugees in Kathmandu to increase their anti-China activities.

Just before the US delegation’s visit to Kathmandu, Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi had met Home Minister Bal Krishna Khand and reminded him of China’s position on the Tibetan refugees.

The US side didn’t publicize Zeya’s engagement with the Tibetan community in Kathmandu.  The delegation had also met some human rights activists and Dalit lawmakers. Neither the US nor Nepal issued a formal statement on these meetings.

In recent times, America’s engagement with the Tibetan community has been further cemented after the US Congress in December 2020 passed a bill aimed at boosting American support for the Tibetan community in key areas. It includes the provision of sanctioning Chinese officials if they try to appoint the next Dalai Lama.

Built on the landmark Tibetan Policy Act of 2002, the Tibet Policy and Support Act addresses Tibetan human rights, environmental rights, religious freedoms, and the democratic Tibetan government-in-exile. The act states that the naming of the next Dalai Lama is the sole right of Tibetan Buddhists and there should be no interference in it from China.

The selection of the Dalai Lama’s successor is going to become a bone of contention between the US and China, with India likely to support the US position. China, meanwhile, has been insisting that the succession has to be decided within Chinese territory and that it has to have a say in the matter.

Similarly, the American Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018 commits to providing a budget to nongovernmental organizations to support activities preserving cultural traditions and promoting sustainable development, education, and environmental conservation in Tibetan communities in Tibet Autonomous Region and in other Tibetan communities in China, India, and Nepal.

Ever since the formation of the Sher Bahadur Deuba government, the US and European diplomats have been seen engaging more and more with Kathmandu’s Tibetan community.

In the first week of March, on the occasion of Tibetan New Year, the ambassadors of many countries had participated in a special function organized in Lalitpur.

China, meanwhile, has been trying to crack down on the Tibetan activities in Nepal. Beijing’s concern over Tibetan refugees in Nepal increased particularly after 2008, when Nepal became a republic.

Given the fragile political situation in Nepal back then, Beijing was worried that anti-China activities could increase. China then took up the Tibetan refugee issue with Nepali political parties and started cultivating deeper ties with them.

That year, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, as the world’s attention was on China, Tibetans staged several protests in Kathmandu. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested. The protests were followed by a series of high-level visits by Chinese officials to Nepal. China also beefed up security along its border with Nepal and imposed stronger restrictions on cross-border movements. A WikiLeaks entry from 2010 reads: “Beijing has asked Kathmandu to step up patrols… and make it more difficult for Tibetans to enter Nepal.” 

Foreign policy experts say the US may further push the issue of Tibet, but the heart of the matter is how Nepal independently deals with it without being influenced by either side. 

Rupak Sapkota, a scholar on Nepal-China relations, says latest high-level visits from the American side should not be viewed only through the prism of bilateral relations. The Biden administration has in fact been engaging the Indo-Pacific region through new initiatives and increased investment.

“Containing China remains at the heart of America’s Indo-Pacific-related policies, including the latest in the form of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. America’s growing engagement with Nepal is a part of its regional and global strategies,” he says.

He adds that Nepal should be cautious about “the genuine concerns of neighboring countries.” China has strongly reacted to Zeya’s meeting with Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal.

On May 19, Zhao Lijian, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, said the US should honor its commitment to acknowledge Tibet as a part of China, and not support Tibetan Independence.

“It should stop meddling in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of Tibet-related issues, and offer no support to the anti-China separatist activities of the Dalai clique. China will continue to take necessary measures to resolutely safeguard its sovereignty, security, and development interests,” he said.

A Nepali diplomatic source says China has taken the US officials’ India and Nepal visits seriously.

“The Chinese side do not have any objections to greater economic partnership between Nepal and the US but in recent times the US has been trying to stir up China’s sensitivity while dealing with Nepal,” the source tells ApEx.

On the problems faced by Tibetan refugees in Nepal, the source adds that “China doesn’t recognize them as refugees”. Nonetheless, Nepal can engage in consultations aimed at addressing their health, education, and livelihood-related concerns. 

As Prime Minister Deuba prepares to jet off to Washington for an official visit sometime in July, “The Chinese side believes that Kathmandu should take Beijing into confidence while making any decisions on Tibetan refugees. China is preparing to seriously take up this issue with Nepal,” says the source.