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For EU, Trade Will Trump Tibet

Alok Rashmi Mukhopadhyay was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 26, 2008

    The streets of Lhasa have started to become quiet once again. It would be just a matter of weeks if not months before the Forbidden City once again invites tourists to the roof of the world to experience ‘Tibetan culture’, the preservation of which has been one of the central demands of the demonstrators. Tibet would soon show its ‘normalcy’ to the world, with the Olympic Torch passing through it.

    China’s strategy in Tibet is two-fold. On the one hand, Chinese authorities have adopted a strategy of protracted and futile negotiations to frustrate Tibetans and force their restive younger generation to resort to violent methods. This would make Beijing’s task easier of criminalising the movement and brutally crushing it. At the same time, it is also waiting for the present Dalai Lama to pass from the scene so that it could gain greater control over the Tibetan religious order. On the other hand, the process of Han-isation of Tibet and militarisation of its ecologically delicate landscape would proceed unabated so that the known face of Tibet would soon become unrecognisable to visitors who would not be able to find out an iota of dissent in this ‘autonomous region’.

    On the external plane, Chinese foreign policy aims to counter legitimate concerns about human rights abuses, freedom of speech, movement and religious practices, rights of ethnic minorities, etc. These are legitimate concerns raised by the international media and watchdogs as well as Western governments, who have also been supporting the Tibetan cause and advocating a dialogue between the Chinese government and Tibetans. The Chinese strategy is to carefully cultivate and build a pool of Sinophiles in various countries who would support the Communist Party’s stand on various issues or at least remain silent. At the same time, it is also endeavouring to establish a pro-China trade and industry lobby in various countries in order to prevent their governments from undertaking any drastic measures against China. As it is, growing trade with China and the promise of the Chinese market have led to Sino-centrism among major industrialised countries, who have been struggling to find an appropriate way of dealing with China in the wake of the present uprising in Tibet without hampering their long-term trade interests.

    The response of the European Union (EU), especially the major EU countries, is interesting to note in this context. Europe has a considerable number of supporters of the Tibetan cause and the Dalai Lama is a respected figure not only among the common people but among heads of governments as well. Besides, ‘a new generation of European leaders’ like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy are seen to be adopting critical stands towards China unlike their immediate predecessors. Moreover, there is constant pressure on the Union to take a more decisive and vocal stand on China, with the European media even urging the EU to boycott the Olympics.

    Yet, on March 17, the EU under the current Slovenian presidency unanimously adopted the Ljubljana Declaration and ruled out an Olympics boycott arguing that the Dalai Lama himself has not ‘spoken out against a boycott’. For observers of EU affairs, the Ljubljana Declaration seems to be partly vague and open to multiple interpretations, leaving many questions unanswered. Firstly, though the declaration states that a boycott could “signify actually losing an opportunity to promote human rights,” it does not spell out how the EU is going to promote human rights by participating in the Beijing Olympics or what would be its position on Tibet after the Olympics. Similarly, when the declaration articulates that the “boycott could, at the same time, cause considerable harm to the population of China as a whole,” it leads to the plausible interpretation that a hypothetical boycott would actually play havoc on the Olympic industry in which Chinese and Western companies have ploughed a lot of investments – something that EU countries do not seem to wish to risk.

    A basic fact needs to be highlighted here. The EU remains China’s most important trading partner; European exports to China in 2006 were worth about US $63.3 billion. Though there is resentment in Europe about the trade imbalance and lack of protection for intellectual property rights in China, the general trend has been one of major European leaders visiting China and signing huge trade deals and agreements to channel foreign direct investments into the fastest growing economy in the world. The EU’s response to developments in Tibet has to be seen against this backdrop.

    For instance, last year, when Angela Merkel received the Dalai Lama at her Berlin office in a rare gesture, German industry expressed fears that it would actually pay the price for the Chancellor’s honest gesture. In the wake of the recent Tibetan protests, domestic opinion in Germany has been totally in favour of preserving Tibetan culture and the German government has demanded transparency from the Chinese side. In protest against Beijing’s handling of the issue, the German Federal Ministry of Economic Development and Co-operation has suspended talks with its Chinese counterpart. However, it is more than likely that the German response will be confined to such symbolic gestures. As Matthias Nass has pointed out in Die Zeit, “nobody wants to antagonise China” because of the need for its co-operation on a range of issues, including international terrorism, Iran and North Korea, as well as because of its mammoth foreign currency reserves.

    Given the consensual nature of EU’s foreign policy making, a decisive common EU position on Tibet cannot be expected soon. Major European countries will announce their positions, after which the EU would shape its own collective position. This, in any case, will follow intense debate and closed-door negotiations. Going by the restrained responses of major European powers so far, it is more than likely that the EU’s trade interests will trump the cause of Tibet.