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OPINION / ANALYSIS

China, South Africa and Tibet: About A New Apartheid

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Gunjan Singh
April 3, 2009

A new kind of apartheid is emerging from a country which had been under five decades of apartheid regime. The recent denial of visa to Dalai Lama to enter and attend a conference in South Africa has created much uproar in the breaking news! Dalai Lama was to attend the Nobel Peace Prize laureate's conference that was to highlight the role of football in fighting xenophobia and racism.

To deny entry of Dalai Lama for a conference on xenophobia and racism is a contradiction in itself. China's economic might and its growing integration with the South African economy has proved to be the deciding factor behind the denial of visa to Dalai Lama. Isn't such an act the most blatant example of discrimination in itself?

While the South African government has sighted the reason that the presence of Dalai Lama will divert the focus from the 2010 FIFA World Cup to be hosted by South Africa, to do it without detailing how it could happen means that there is a hidden hand at work. And that this should happen in South Africa is a cause of concern for a couple of reasons.

This decision has created a great deal of uproar at the domestic as well as the international level. First and foremost this has resulted in the postponement of the event as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former president F W de Klerk said that they would not attend if the Dalai Lama would not be present. The same was asserted by the Norwegian Nobel committee. Meanwhile Mandla Mandela, grandson of Nelson Mandela, has attacked the African National Congress's decision to deny the visa to Dalai Lama. He has commented that this step goes against the spirit of South African democracy.

But the issue does not appear to be this simple. It appears that the South African government has agreed to take Beijing's side and has been awarded with due appreciation as well. Qin Gang, the foreign ministry spokesman, said: "All countries should respect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity and oppose Tibetan independence. We appreciate relevant countries' measures." Though this does not mention South Africa it is quite clear as to who this refers to.

Beijing has always put forward proposals to countries in order to deny the entry of Dalai Lama. In South Africa this denial comes just days after China established an office in Johannesburg to allocate about $6.5 billion in investment funds. It would not be farfetched to say that this denial has at least back fired for the South African government. There have been reports in the local media calling it timid. The refusal to condemn Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe, or to vote against the Burmese military government at the United Nations shows that the South African government is fast loosing its credibility. Though South Africa has been under authoritative regimes for a long time the current government is ready to align with hard line Chinese attitude towards Tibet.

The economic interests are the one deciding as to how the world interacts and responds to China. Last year after the Tibetan uprising there were a few voices which took pro-Tibetan stance initially. The most prominent among these was the stand taken by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Though initially he asserted that he won't be attending the Beijing Olympics inaugural, he changed his stand later and went for the function. This definitely proves that economic interests are the ultimate deciding factor in present international relations.

Though the organizers took the step in order to not to divert the attention from the football it has resulted in providing the Tibetan cause the attention of the media world over. What is amusing is that a Conference which was supposed to be dealing with the issues of xenophobia and racism has proved to be out rightly discriminating in nature.

kowtowing to the Chinese stand has changed the dynamics of the ongoing Tibetan struggle further. In the past the Dalai Lama had to struggle against Beijing only, but the current trend shows that now he might just have to struggle against the whole world. With China becoming more and more integrated with the world economy the more sidelined the questions related to Tibet, Taiwan and Human Rights violation will become. The beginning of this trend was unveiled during the visit of Hillary Clinton to Beijing last month. Even the United States which in the past had upheld the cause of the Tibetan people has accepted Beijing's stand tacitly. 10. In this scenario India's situation becomes more and more precarious and its diplomacy is constantly put to test. The Tibetan government in exile is located in Dharamshala. What appears is that the Chinese government is successfully building an anti-Tibet lobby around the world. What will India do if such instance of visa denial to Dalai Lama becomes the order of the day? Will India be in the position to take a stand for or against the Tibetan struggle without jeopardizing its economic as well as internal security issues? As the Tibetan population gets more and more integrated within the Indian society it will become more and more difficult for the Indian government to take a coherent stand.

In this scenario India's situation becomes more and more precarious and its diplomacy is constantly put to test. The Tibetan government in exile is located in Dharamshala. What appears is that the Chinese government is successfully building an anti-Tibet lobby around the world. What will India do if such instance of visa denial to Dalai Lama becomes the order of the day? Will India be in the position to take a stand for or against the Tibetan struggle without jeopardizing its economic as well as internal security issues? As the Tibetan population gets more and more integrated within the Indian society it will become more and more difficult for the Indian government to take a coherent stand.

Gunjan Singh is a researcher at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi