It has been 71 years since the annexation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China and ten years since the US established the Tibetan coordinator office. The position went vacant for three years under Trump’s administration, but a new coordinator was appointed a year ago. But even with the current coordinator, Uzra Zeya, following the mission to increase dialogue between China and the exiled Dalai Lama, the future of Tibet remains uncertain. Meanwhile, its multiple ESG challenges grow.

The treasures of Tibet continue to be exploited

For decades, China has pulled Tibet towards an industrial modernity completely distinct from the region’s cultural heritage. Even today, Tibet’s economy remains largely dependent on subsistence agriculture, but new industries have now developed within mining, construction, power generation, agricultural processing, and tourism. While this could be seen as the market economy at work and the inevitable steps into modernity, what ties these changes together is the direct degradation of the Tibetan environment in which much of the local culture lies. With Tibet, China has at its doorstep access to copper, borax, high-grade iron, lead, lithium, potash, and zinc, all valuable resources that lend China self-sufficiency vital for our world of growing supply chain disruptions and geopolitical tensions. 

To speed up access to Tibet’s huge potential of mineral wealth, China has carried out large-scale infrastructure projects from roads to dams, and the construction of the Qinghai–Tibet railway in 2006 connecting Tibet to central and eastern China. The railway has catalyzed extraction, with almost 100 mining sites set up across Tibet just 10 years after its construction.

Mining in Tibet is having dire environmental effects. The mining of coal, copper, and lithium has contaminated many bodies of water in Tibet, affecting both drinking water for local communities and the health of plants, livestock, and fish. The Tibetan plateau is the source of many of Asia’s largest rivers, including the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Salween, and Sutlej and so extensive mining is polluting further downstream too. Large-scale mining in the area is also claiming land used by local herders for grazing, fundamentally affecting their way of life and even destroying areas of sacred land, as in the case of gold mining.

Western engagement is shrinking into the background

Despite continued social and environmental challenges in Tibet, international media attention in recent years has been scarce. As eyes turn to China’s actions in the South China Sea and other global calamities, Tibet receives less consideration. Western engagement must ensure continued attention is given to China’s actions in Tibet and interrogate its own methods of engagement to guarantee the best outcomes for the Tibetan people. It should be the mission of western engagement to facilitate and not dictate China-Tibet relations.

The office for the Tibetan coordinator in the US, set up after the Tibetan Policy Act of 2001-2002, purports the following mission:

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By GlobalData

“The US Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues leads U.S. efforts to advance the human rights of Tibetans; help preserve their distinct religious, linguistic, and cultural identity; address their humanitarian needs, including those of Tibetan diaspora communities; increase access to Tibet; meet the environmental and water security challenges facing the Tibetan plateau; and promote dialogue, without preconditions, between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Dalai Lama or his representatives.”

The objectives of advancing the “human rights of Tibetans” and offering “humanitarian needs” are essential and where western engagement should stand firm in assessing the actions of China in the region. However, the objectives of “preserv[ing]” Tibetan religion, language, and culture alongside meeting “environmental and water security challenges” are trickier issues in which the West, in this case, the US, should closely interrogate its actions. The preservation of culture, for example, is something that should be determined in close collaboration with the local populations. It is not in the scope of Western powers to decide or speak to which aspects of local culture the Tibetans hold dear. Even addressing environmental challenges needs to be considered in tandem with local stakeholders as foreign intervention in local resources is not always benign in its agenda or impacts, as seen in China’s use of Tibet’s natural resources.

Tibet’s uncertain future

As western engagement in Tibet fades into the background and China’s case for modernity in the region grows, the future of Tibet as a recognizably distinct region seems uncertain. The introduction of new industries by China will continue to degrade the natural environment and the cultural practices of the local population as industrial employment replaces subsistence living. At the same time, increased prosperity for local Tibetans because of new industries may serve to sway political opinions towards China and assimilate Tibet further. The material benefits, however, will not offset environmental and cultural erosion but may make it less visible to local and foreign witnesses. And if we apply Xi Jinping’s stance towards Taiwan—that forcible reunification is not off the table—it can be assumed that any resistance within Tibet will be met with a harsh response from Beijing. As the many ESG challenges facing Tibet come to focus, foreign nations and companies must be attentive and nuanced in their efforts to support Tibet and its future.