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Tibet Issue-Lobsang Sangay As 'Prime Minister':Impact on Sino-Tibetan Dialogue

Lobsang Sangay(43), who hails from the community of Tibetans exiled around Darjeeling in India and studied in Delhi and Harvard Universities, but was never in Tibet, formally took over as ‘Prime Minister’ of the ‘Tibetan Government in Exile’ at Dharamsala (India) on 8 August 2011. For the Tibetans abroad, the occasion indeed marked a land-mark event for two reasons- for the first time, a separate political and religious leadership for them have come into being and more importantly, a way has been found to deal with possible vacuum in the leadership if the 14th Dalai Lama passes away.

The first thing Sangay did after being sworn in, was to distance himself from his past connections with the pro-independence Tibetan Youth Congress which is being considered by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a ‘terrorist’ organization, by assuring in his inaugural speech that under his leadership, there would be no shift from the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Path” guideline which seeks ‘meaningful autonomy’, but not ‘independence’, for Tibet. He also chose the occasion to make an appeal to India for ‘treating Tibet as one of the core issues in Sino-Indian talks’, which New Delhi is sure to ignore. Interesting is that China itself considers Tibet issue as a ‘sensitive’ one in its relations with India (Premier Wen Jiabao, Xinhua, 18 March 2008); Beijing’s official organ People’s Daily (22 October 2009) was more explicit by alleging that the ‘Dalai Lama is colluding with India whenever Sino-Indian border talks are held’. In any case, it cannot be denied that the Tibet issue, though not in a formal sense, has come to stay as a bilateral matter for New Delhi and Beijing.

A key point relating to Sino-Tibetan dialogue was Sangay’s willingness expressed in his speech ‘to negotiate with the Chinese government on the Tibet issue at any time and anywhere’. While there has been no reaction so far from Beijing on Sangay’s offer , from what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the PRC Foreign Ministry said earlier in April 2011, after the Dalai Lama made an official announcement about the impending leadership change, it is becoming clear that there is no possibility at all of the PRC holding talks with the Sangay Administration on the Tibet issue at government level. In this regard, what the Vice-Minister in the CCP United Front Work Department Zhu Weiqun, in charge of holding negotiations with the Dalai Lama side has said could be significant. He has mentioned (interview with “China’s Tibet” journal, 14 May 2011) that the Tibetan government in exile, ‘led by who so ever’, is a “separatist political clique with no legitimacy, absolutely having no status to engage in dialogue with representatives of the Central government”. The spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry, Hong Lei denounced Sangay’s appointment (28 April, 2011) saying that it is yet “another political show by the Dalai Lama which no country in the world recognizes”.

Will China be willing to continue the ongoing process of holding unofficial dialogue with the Dalai Lama’s envoys after Sangay’s entry into the scene? China, as a responsible global player now, needs to listen to international voices favouring its negotiations with the Dalai Lama side. On this basis, one may expect the CCP to open talks with Sangay’s private representatives, on the same lines of nine rounds of unofficial negotiations held so far between the Dalai Lama’s special envoys and the party’s United Front Work Department officials. But some voices being heard from China are hinting that such expectations may not be accurate, For example, a People’s Daily article (26 July 2011) said that the Dalai Lama during his recent overseas trips, has taken positions which are ‘totally and diametrically opposite to those of the Central government showing that he has no interest in talks’. A question arises – Is Beijing by itself trying to scuttle the chances of holding talks taking the exiled spiritual leader’s statements as a pretext?

The period prior to the April 2011 election of Sangay, witnessed signs pointing to China’s willingness to somewhat shed its rigidity on the Tibet issue, but without making any compromise on the country’s basic stand on Tibet’s sovereignty. The documents relating to the Fifth Tibet Work Forum (January 2010) held with President Hu Jintao in chair, for first time since 2008 riots, revealed a new trend – the rhetoric against the Dalai Lama was toned down and a fresh developmental approach centering round regional integration of all Tibetan areas of the PRC including the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) was adopted. It looked like a Chinese acceptance of the Dalai Lama’s ‘Greater Tibet’ concept but limited to economic terms. The Tibetan representatives participating in the ninth round of Sino-Tibetan dialogue which closely followed the Forum took a positive note of such fresh nuances in China’s Tibet policy.

The reason for China’s reversion to a hard line on the Tibet issue in the post-April 2011 period requires a careful analysis. Is it a sign of Chinese uneasiness about Sangay’s appointment? The answer could possibly be yes. Among examples, was the PRC White Paper, captioned “60 Years Since the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet”, released on 11 July 2011. It made a forceful reiteration that Tibet was always a part of China and that no country or government in the world has ever acknowledged the ‘independence’ of Tibet. It claimed that since ancient times, the Tibetan people have a close ‘blood’ relationship with the Hans and blamed ‘Western imperialists’ for ‘trying to divide China through their Tibetan independence plot’. In addition to this, evidences signaling a rise again in the anti-Dalai Lama rhetoric are surfacing, The PRC Vice-President Xi Jinping, heir-apparent to Hu Jintao as Party chief and President, in a hard-hitting speech (Lhasa, 19 July 2011) said that his nation should “thoroughly fight against separatist activities by the Dalai clique and smash completely any plot to destroy stability in Tibet and jeopardize national unity”. He especially praised the People’s Liberation Army as ‘loyal guardian’ of stability in Tibet.

As this writer sees, the PRC, which considers Tibet a ‘core interest’ area, may like to quietly follow an approach which does not provide for a return to Tibet by the Dalai Lama and his followers, based on its fears that in that case, separatism will grow in that sensitive border region, posing a serious challenge to the country’s territorial integrity. For public consumption, Beijing, may however like it to be seen at the moment as a willing party for holding talks with the Dalai Lama side, now politically represented by Lobsang Sangay, knowing fully well that a breakthrough will be difficult to achieve. In the long run, China may choose to wait for the overseas Tibetan movement to get weakened both from within and internationally, especially with an eye on the likely situation if the Dalai Lama is no longer in the scene. Nevertheless, if Sangay is able to sustain the already achieved momentum in the fight for Tibetan cause even without the Dalai Lama or if pro-independence Tibetan forces in exile get upper hand with no strong figure like the Dalai Lama around, there could emerge a situation when it would be difficult to predict how China will respond. This being so, a safe conclusion at this juncture can be that there is not going to be a quick end to the present stalemate in the Tibet issue. What should be the response to this from India which has a complex relationship with China due to dividing strategic issues and enjoys a definite stake in the settlement of the Tibet issue? Needless to say that New Delhi, keeping in mind the not far away beginning of post-Dalai Lama era, should now start fine-tuning its policies on China and Tibet with a view to ensuring that its national interests do not suffer.

(The writer,D.S.Rajan, is Director,Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India.

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