U.S., India Step Up Fight With China Over the Next Dalai Lama
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama and Tibet's spiritual leader, speaks to the media at the White House in Washington. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

U.S., India Step Up Fight With China Over the Next Dalai Lama

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama—the spiritual leader of Tibetans, who lives in exile in India—turns 86 in July. The choice of his successor is shaping up to be a struggle between India and the U.S. on the one hand and China on the other.

The Dalai Lama is believed to be a living Buddha who is reincarnated after his death. Traditionally a search for a child reincarnation is conducted, and once a boy is confirmed, he studies to prepare for his role. The current Dalai Lama was identified at the age of 2. There’s no single method of choosing a Dalai Lama, and the process can be long and complicated.

U.S., India Step Up Fight With China Over the Next Dalai Lama

Senior security officials in India, including in the prime minister’s office, have been involved in discussions about how New Delhi can influence the choice of the next Dalai Lama, two officials with direct knowledge of the matter said, asking not to be identified given the sensitive nature of the matter. India hosts the Tibetan government-in-exile in the city of Dharamsala and only recognized Tibet as part of China in 2003. The prime minister’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

From January through March, along its Himalayan border with China, India convened five separate assemblies of senior monks from various sects and schools in the region—the first time such gatherings have taken place in more than 2,000 years. The government hopes that this group will grant international legitimacy to the current Dalai Lama’s successor and help fill a power vacuum, as it could take two decades or longer for a reincarnation to be identified and to come of age.

In 1959, U.S. intelligence agents helped smuggle Tenzin Gyatso out of Tibet and into northern India to avoid being captured by Chinese security forces. He hasn’t laid out a clear succession plan. A decade ago, he issued a statement saying he’d consult with other Tibetan Buddhist leaders when he’s about 90 on whether the more than 600-year-old institution of the Dalai Lama should continue after he dies.

Samdhong Rinpoche, who is part of the Dalai Lama’s personal office, the Gaden Phodrang, which will help decide the succession, says that if Tibet “remains occupied” by China, “His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said he will be reincarnated outside Tibet and most likely in India.” China may appoint its own Dalai Lama, but its choice “will have no legitimacy.”

Until last year, Rinpoche says, there was “semi-official communication” between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama, with the government trying to persuade the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet. His return wouldn’t be possible under the current political situation, Rinpoche says.

In 2007, China issued an order that requires authorities in Beijing to oversee the next Dalai Lama’s selection without the interference “of any foreign organization or individual.” It calls for potential successors to be chosen by picking lots from the golden urn in Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital. When installed, the Dalai Lama must then get a “living Buddha permit” from the Chinese government. Chinese officials say there’s precedent for Beijing to be involved in picking the Dalai Lama, as the current one ascended to the position in 1939 after being approved by Chiang Kai-shek, who was president of the Republic of China before the Communist Party took power in 1949.

The Dalai Lama has called that a “lie” and says the golden urn method was used to pick only two of the 14 Dalai Lamas since the first one was born in 1391. (The Dalai Lama said a different procedure, the “dough-ball method,” could be used if there were multiple candidates; this entails writing the names on a piece of paper, encasing them in dough balls, placing these in a bowl before a sacred object for three weeks, and then publicly rolling them around in the bowl until one falls out.)

The struggle over the Dalai Lama comes as the Biden administration works more closely with partners in Asia to sanction Beijing over human-rights abuses, restrict exports of key technology to China, and push back against the country’s territorial claims, including over Taiwan. Beijing has responded by lashing out at the U.S. and its allies, insisting they have no say in Tibet, Xinjiang, or other “internal” matters.

Last year, former President Donald Trump signed the Tibetan Policy and Support Act, which reiterates the U.S. stand that the current Dalai Lama is the final authority on his reincarnation, and in November 2020, the head of Tibet’s exiled government visited the White House for the first time. The Biden administration is maintaining Trump’s policy: “We believe that the Chinese government should have no role in the succession process of the Dalai Lama,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters in March. Rinpoche says the U.S. policy is well-intentioned, but “the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama is entirely a spiritual matter for the people of Tibet.”

Majority-Hindu India was the birthplace of Buddhism and is reasserting its role as a protector of the religion. In previous decades, leaders in New Delhi saw the Dalai Lama’s presence in the country as a “Tibet card” they could use to pressure authorities in Beijing by holding out the threat of recognizing Tibet as an independent country. More recently, their view of the Tibetan exile community has shifted depending on relations with China. As tensions heated up last year with the deadliest clash in decades along the India-China Himalayan border, India last September openly acknowledged for the first time a secret military unit with Tibetan soldiers.

China, too, sees value in using Buddhism to exercise power in Tibet and more broadly throughout Asia. “China has been using Tibetan Buddhism as a soft-power tool,” says Sana Hashmi, a visiting fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation.

While the current Dalai Lama has advocated only autonomy for Tibet, not independence, Beijing still sees that as a threat. Wu Yingjie, the Communist Party’s top official overseeing Tibet, wrote in an official publication last October that China should “go deep in exposing the counter-revolutionary nature of Dalai Lama and the Dalai Clique” and guide the Tibetan people to “take a rational approach to religion.”

A similar power struggle played out with the Panchen Lama, the second-most prominent figure in Tibetan Buddhism. After the death of the 10th Panchen Lama in 1989, both the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama identified reincarnations. The man selected by Beijing is now a senior adviser to China’s parliament. The Dalai Lama’s choice hasn’t been seen in two decades, and his followers say he was abducted at the age of 6.

“The reincarnation of Dalai and Panchen is rightly China’s internal affair” and “allows no interference of external forces,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We urge the relevant parties to recognize the anti-China separatist nature of the 14th Dalai and the so-called Tibetan government-in-exile, be careful in their words and deeds, and stop using Tibet-related issues to interfere in China’s internal affairs.” 
 
Read next: Biden’s China Policy Hinges on How Much Xi Is Willing to Give

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