The EU needs to act to ensure that China does not use violence to put down protests in Tibet, but engages the Dalai Lama in real dialogue.
With the streets of Lhasa’s old-town deserted apart from a heavy policy presence enforcing a cordon around the area, the Chinese authorities appear to have contained the protests in Tibet for the time being. Security forces have started house to house searches, presumably looking for those responsible for stoking the discontent. Protests in neighbouring Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces were still on-going yesterday, but with reports of the Army having been called in they are likely to similarly quieten down today or tomorrow.
The challenge now for the Chinese and EU Governments is what to do next. Internal pressure from Tibetans demanding more autonomy, and a wide range of other groups dissatisfied with the Chinese Government for their own reasons, is only likely to increase in the run up to the Olympics. The next flashpoints in Tibet will be how the Chinese Government handles those deemed to be responsible for last week’s protests after the deadline of midnight tonight passes and how to manage the withdrawal of the thousands of police currently on the streets. If the Chinese Government survives these tests without sparking further riots, the next test will be when the Olympic torch passes through Tibet on 20-21 June.
EU Governments have to decide how to respond to the Chinese Government’s handling of the protests and their aftermath, particularly if the reports of up to 80 Tibetans being killed turn out to be true. Calls for restraint will undoubtedly be followed with calls for leniency in dealing with protestors and for the release of those detained. But EU Governments should do more to ensure that China does not use violence to suppress future demonstrations and to underline that the only way to avoid further escalation is to engage in real dialogue with the Tibetan Government in exile, with the aim of giving Tibet real autonomy (not independence).
EU Governments need to be franker with China. If these or future demonstrations lead to scenes which are at all reminiscent of Tiananmen Square, there is no way that public opinion will allow EU leaders to go to the Olympics. China knows there is a line it should not cross, but EU Governments need to make clear, in public, that this line is not far away. The Chinese handling of the protests is also a reminder of why the EU has an arms embargo against China. Again there is no way EU Governments can sell arms to China that could be used to kill Tibetan protestors, and the EU needs to make this clear to China.
But this is not going to bring about a long term solution to Tibet. EU Governments have a responsibility to use the pressure of public attention around the Olympics and heightened calls from within the country to press China to engage in substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama on real autonomy for Tibet. The EU does not have the leverage to force China to let Tibet go. But the EU is China’s largest trading partner and it does have publics that will place restrictions beyond the Olympics on what relationship the EU can have with China. If China wants to continue to extend its relations with the EU, including through the negotiation of a new partnership and cooperation agreement and gaining market economy status, it needs to address the Tibet issue and it needs to start doing it now whilst the rest of the world is watching.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.