Obama-Dalai Lama Talks Put Spotlight on Sino-Tibetan Dialogue

By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
2014.02.25
A Tibetan self-immolating at a monastery in Gansu province, Feb. 25, 2013.
Photo courtesy of an RFA listener.

A spotlight has been thrust anew on the long-stalled dialogue between China and envoys of the Dalai Lama following the controversial meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and the Tibetan spiritual leader at the White House last week.

Obama had called for the resumption of the dialogue — as he did in his previous two meetings with the exiled Dalai Lama — but such a prospect appears slim if Beijing's tirade of criticism following the White House meeting is any indication.

Still, some believe that Chinese President Xi Jinping will revive the talks under his watch as he exudes confidence over his Tibet policy, which has led to extensive tightening of security controls and to what rights groups call harsh suppression of human rights in the Beijing-ruled Himalayan region.

Last year, China allowed foreign diplomats and journalists to visit Tibet under their close supervision, even as it remained virtually under martial law as authorities kept a tight lid on Tibetan-populated areas in Chinese provinces where most of the 127 Tibetan self-immolation protests against Beijing rule have occurred so far.

"So it is not impossible that, once the embarrassment of the meeting with President Obama has subsided, the Chinese side might eventually agree to talks of some kind," Columbia University Tibet scholar Robbie Barnett told RFA.

"But if they do, we have no idea what offers, if any, they might put on the table, when or whether they might ever let the talks lead to substantive negotiations, or whom the Tibetans would choose to replace their chief negotiator, who resigned just over a year ago," he said.

The Sino-Tibetan dialogue began in 2002 in a bid to consider prospects of "genuine" autonomy for Tibet as called for by the Dalai Lama, but it ground to a halt in 2010 without any breakthrough after nine formal rounds of discussion and one informal meeting.

Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen, who served as the Dalai Lama’s personal representatives in the discussions, resigned their posts in 2012, citing frustration over the lack of positive response from the Chinese side.

None of the Tibetan leader's proposals has been taken up or accepted by the Chinese side in the negotiations, including an upfront call for a face-to-face meeting between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese leadership.

Obama, in his one-hour talks with the Dalai Lama last Friday, expressed support for the Tibetan leader's “Middle Way” approach and sought the revival of the direct Sino-Tibetan dialogue to resolve long-standing differences.

The U.S. leader said that "a dialogue that produces results would be positive for China and Tibetans," according to a White House statement after the talks, held despite objections from Beijing, which had warned that the meeting would inflict grave damage on Sino-American relations.

The White House statement that the U.S. regards Tibet as a part of China and does not support Tibet's independence, as well as making clear that the Dalai Lama himself is not seeking independence for Tibet, did not impress the Chinese.

Instead, Beijing accused the United States of meddling in its domestic affairs, and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui summoned Daniel Kritenbrink, charge d'affaires of the U.S. embassy, to personally express his country's anger.

China not ready for talks?

Against the backdrop of China's bluster and the diplomatic rebuke, some analysts argue that Beijing may not be ready for talks with the Dalai Lama's side.

Beijing may also not see the need yet for a resumption of the dialogue.

China "feels no compulsion to engage in such a dialogue," said Raja Mohan, an Indian foreign policy analyst and former member of India's National Security Advisory Board.

"Despite the Dalai Lama’s explicit rejection of secession from China, Beijing feels it is under no obligation to talk to him," he said in a commentary. "China’s rise on the world stage is making it increasingly difficult for the Dalai Lama to mobilise international support."

But the Chinese authorities, despite the deluge of criticism over the talks and the Dalai Lama's Middle Way approach, have not ruled out the prospect of talks.

"The door of the central government to engaging in contacts and consultation with the Dalai Lama is always open," Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang said in reply to reporters questions in Beijing, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

"If the Dalai Lama really wishes to achieve progress in his contacts and consultation with the central government, he should thoroughly reflect on his words and deeds and stop all the separatist and sabotaging activities," he said.

The Dalai Lama, who has been the face and symbol of the Tibetan struggle for freedom for more than five decades, said again on Monday that his Middle Way approach does not seek separation from China.

"To seek total independence undermines that support [of the Middle Way approach from the Chinese people in China and abroad] and any chance of opening a dialogue with the authorities," said the Tibetan leader who fled to India after a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese occupation.  

'A high degree of autonomy'

The Xinhua news agency said in an opinion piece at the weekend that the Middle Way approach demands "a high degree of autonomy" for Tibet, adding that this would leave all affairs but military and diplomacy under the control of the Dalai Lama, who now lives in the Indian hill-town of Dharamsala where the Tibetan government-in-exile, the Central Tibetan Administration, is also based.

"This amounts to the overthrow of China's State system on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau," said the article, which pointed out that under the Middle Way proposals, the Chinese government would have to pull its army out from "Greater Tibet" and turn the area into an "international peace zone," as well as drive all other ethnic groups out of it.

Tibet scholar Barnett said Chinese authorities are banking on economic growth to douse Tibetan resentment against Beijing.

"Beijing is certainly hoping that improvements in income generation among ordinary people in Tibet will mean that more and more Tibetans will elect to avoid open conflict with the state in the future. Whether they are right or not may be the most critical question for them and for Dharamsala."

Barnett said that a resumption of talks between the Dalai Lama side and Beijing "would be progress, but it would be only the start of a long and fragile process that could collapse at any time if either side shows lack of competence or resolve."

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