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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China sees US as hedge for Taiwan, Tibet

April 11, 2010

By Peter Lee
Asia Times (Hong Kong)
April 7, 2010

China and the United States have recently engaged in an exchange of
concessions and amicable statements designed to ratchet down the tensions of
the past few months.

On the surface, China seems to have received little out of the bargain.
However, as it deals with the potential for havoc from two looming
transitions - in the Tibetan diaspora and on Taiwan - Beijing may feel that
it has achieved an important breakthrough.

On March 30, China gave a measure of support to two cherished US diplomatic
objectives.

First, Washington claimed (and Beijing did not deny) that China would
participate in discussions relating to new United Nations Security Council
sanctions against Iran.

Also, China announced that President Hu Jintao would participate in the
non-proliferation conference convened by the United States in New York in
April to advance President Barack Obama's aim of restructuring the US-led
global security regime around eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons.

Time will tell how much effective support or resistance China brings to
these efforts. For the time being, however, China's harvest appears to be
rather meager.

It will join the sanctions effort against its key economic and geopolitical
ally in the Middle East - Iran - and be present at the creation of the
planned fourth iteration of US geopolitical leadership in the past 70 years,
this time centered on non-proliferation (instead of combating fascism,
communism, or terrorism).

The most widely reported quid pro quo - that Hu will be spared the
embarrassment of China being labeled a currency manipulator during his US
visit, so Beijing can revalue the yuan over the summer on its own terms and
gird its loins for an international battle over the exchange rate in time
for the US mid-term election season - seems scant compensation.

However, the Chinese government has been publicly clear and consistent over
several months concerning what it really wanted from the United States:
reaffirmation of the US one-China policy as it relates to Taiwan and Tibet.

A visit in early March by the Obama administration's top two China hands,
Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Jeffrey Bader, senior director
for the US National Security Council for Asian Affairs, failed to achieve
the desired result. Apparently they came to Beijing primed to talk about the
US pre-occupation with Iran sanctions and nothing else. This prompted the
Chinese to go to the extent of producing former US secretary of state Henry
Kissinger for a photo-op with Vice Premier Li Keqiang, to emphasize the
People's Republic's (PRC) nostalgia for the strategic engagement of the
Richard Nixon years.

Based on two special postings on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website,
the PRC believes it finally got what it needed.

Even as the Obama administration was, with cautious exultation, notifying
the press that China would participate in the Iran sanctions exercise. On
March 30, in its news section, the ministry reported: "US Deputy Secretary
of State James Steinberg Reiterates the One China Policy". [1]

Its account of remarks by Steinberg at the US Press Club "in the small hours
of March 30" stated:

The centerpiece is the one-China policy, which has not changed. The US side
does not support independence for Taiwan and opposes unilateral attempts to
change the status quo. The US side welcomes the continued improvement and
development of cross-Straits relations. The US side hopes that the two sides
of the Straits will resolve the issue peacefully through dialogue. The US
side reiterated that it considers Tibet to be a part of China and does not
support independence for Tibet.

The ministry also specially excerpted a passage from spokesperson Qin Gang's
regular press conference expressing satisfaction with Steinberg's "positive
remarks" on Taiwan and Tibet.

China's obsession with the one-China policy is, on one level, difficult to
appreciate.

Western governments, media outlets and human-rights organizations do relish
pulling the dragon's whiskers on the issues of Taiwan and Tibet. However, as
a matter of realpolitik, China's economic and geopolitical clout ensures
that its interests in these two regions are acknowledged as paramount.

However, transitions are looming in Tibet and Taiwan and, with them the
possibility that not only new leaders but new paradigms will emerge.

As the Dalai Lama ages, speculation swirls around the mystery of his
reincarnation - and the question of who will assume religious and political
leadership of the Tibetan diaspora after he dies.

The Dalai Lama has played with the idea of controlling his reincarnation and
possibly designating his successor before he dies, in order to pre-empt
Chinese efforts to control the selection of the next Dalai Lama, as they did
for the current Panchen Lama.

Regardless of what novel methods the Dalai Lama adopts, conflict instigated
by China - and divisions that dilute the authority and prestige of the exile
religious establishment headquartered in Dharmsala, India - are inevitable.

The new governor of the Tibetan Autonomous Region declared that designation
of the next Dalai Lama would strictly adhere to the state-controlled model
dating to the Qing Dynasty: selection by lot from a golden urn under
government supervision.

The Dalai Lama has apparently been grooming the young leader of the Kagyu or
Black Hat sect - the Karmapa - as the leader of Tibetan Buddhism in exile.

The Karmapa possesses an abundance of charisma and a compelling personal
narrative centered on his dramatic escape from China in 2000. However, his
political standing is hampered by a schism within his own sect. A key
Rinpoche of the Kagyu sect, apparently resentful of the pretensions of the
Dalai Lama's (historically more recent) Gelugpa sect to leadership over all
of Tibetan Buddhism, has supported the claim of a rival Karmapa and has been
able to block the Dalai Lama's candidate from entering his seat - Rumtek
Monastery - for almost a decade to claim his ceremonial regalia.

It would appear impossible for the Karmapa to command the same moral and
political authority the Dalai Lama has wielded over the past 60 years.

The next religious leader of Tibetan Buddhism in exile will not only face
challenges from China and Tibet's notoriously contentious religious
factions. He will confront calls from within the Tibetan diaspora for
greater militancy - and democracy.

The Dalai Lama has been pursuing a "Middle Way" policy of autonomy for
ethnic Tibetan regions inside the PRC since the 1980s.

Discussions with the Chinese government have been fruitless, with the
Chinese side temporizing or vilifying the Dalai Lama as its convenience
dictates as it works the security, economic and ethnic migration levers to
integrate Tibet into the Chinese state.

Dissatisfaction with the Middle Way approach - and preference for
independence - permeates the Tibetan diaspora, but is currently held in
check by respect for the Dalai Lama. Once he is gone, it is unlikely that
any successor religious leader will be able to compel the same forbearance.

The Tibetan exile community is rife with organizations - the Tibetan Youth
Congress (the largest diaspora organization, with 30,000 members), the
Tibetan Women's Association, the Gu Chu Sum grouping of Tibetan monks who
escaped to India after being imprisoned inside the PRC - strongly in favor
of independence and visibly chafing at need to respect the Dalai Lama's call
to pursue autonomy talks with China.

After the Dalai Lama is gone, there is a strong possibility that motivated
and organized pro-independence activists will be able to win power in the
Tibetan government in exile.

The current political regime in Dharmsala is a doddering anachronism that in
many respects, resembles the exiled government in Taiwan under Chiang
Kai-shek. It is a partyless system organized around veneration for its
towering political leader. Elections are based on provincial and sectarian
qualifications - voters are supposed to vote for candidates representing
Amdo, Khampa, etc based on the traditional states where they or their
parents were born. Monks get two votes apiece, ensuring that the religious
establishment loyal to the Dalai Lama and suspicious of any opposition to
the Middle Way policy maintains tight control over the parliament.

A leader of the Tibetan independence wing of the diaspora, Jamyang Norbu,
has begun to explore the possibility of forming a political party that will
run for parliamentary seats on the platform of "Rangzen" - full
independence. He is cautious about the near-term prospects for setting up
the party, perhaps because of the widespread deference toward the Dalai Lama
and his Middle Way, and the power of the conservative religious groups.

However, in the long term, he appears sanguine.

Writing on his blog, Shadow Tibet, he described the response to a lecture
tour among Tibetan exile groups in northern India: [2]

I don't think I can adequately describe the incredible enthusiasm of the
monks, lay-people, college-students, schoolchildren and new-arrivals who
attended these talks. The near unanimous fervor and eagerness of everyone to
discuss the issue of Tibetan independence, caught me completely by surprise.
It might also have caused a little concern to some in Beijing. A
denunciation of my talk and myself (the "radical-separatist") appeared on
bbs.tibet.cn on 29.7.09.

The Chinese government can certainly anticipate dissension and a dilution of
religious authority within the Tibetan diaspora community after the Dalai
Lama passes on. However, it must consider the possibility that
pro-independence forces will channel their energies into reforming diaspora
politics and the Tibetan government in exile will emerge from the crisis
more democratic, more energized, and more militant.

Similar generational headaches confront the PRC in its Taiwan policy.

Beijing was overjoyed at the corruption-induced implosion of former
president Chen Shuibian and his pro-Taiwan-independence Democratic
Progressive Party (DPP) in 2008.

The Kuomintang (KMT) party returned to power, led by President Ma Ying-jeou,
who staked his political fortunes on the benefits of closer political and
economic ties with China. However, the DPP has not faded into irrelevance.
It has, with some subtlety, repositioned itself. Today, it need not alarm
the Taiwanese electorate as the destabilizing and dangerous advocate of
independence.

Instead, the DPP can present itself as the protector of Taiwanese interests
against excessive and reckless appeasement of the PRC by the KMT.

The DPP has organized emotional mass demonstrations against visits by PRC
trade teams. In 2008, DPP demonstrators gave a visiting PRC negotiator,
Zhang Mingqing, a taste of the famous hurly-burly of Taiwanese politics,
mobbing him at the Confucian Temple in Tainan, stomping on the roof of his
car, and knocking him down.

So, when the PRC negotiators returned to sign a battery of trade agreements
in Taichung in December 2009, the ceremony took place behind rolls of barbed
wire guarded by riot police facing tens of thousands of demonstrators
carrying banners and, inevitably, burning a PRC flag.

These were, most assuredly, not the visuals to provide political or
electoral comfort to the KMT.

When it comes to profiting from the politics of nativism and xenophobia, the
DPP has demographics on its side. The Election Studies Center of National
Chengchi University in Taiwan has conducted polls on ethnic
self-identification of Taiwan residents since 1992.

The results are undoubtedly causing considerable heartburn in Beijing.

The ESC data shows that 17% of respondents identified themselves as
exclusively Taiwanese in 1992. The number has crept up steadily over the
next 25 years. In 2008, "Taiwanese" respondents exceeded "Taiwanese and
Chinese" respondents for the first time. Over the next 18 months,
"Taiwanese" made a steep climb to 51%, while "Taiwanese and Chinese" dropped
to 43%. [3]

As for respondents who identified themselves as "Chinese", the
second-largest group (26%) when polling began in 1992 (behind "Taiwanese and
Chinese"): the category had virtually disappeared by 2008, with a share of
less than 5%.

To China's dismay, the jump in self-identification as Taiwanese by residents
of the island has been matched by a precipitous decline in Ma's poll
numbers.

Two years after cruising to a massive victory in the presidential elections,
Ma is staggering with personal popularity numbers on the order of 24%. The
KMT underperformed badly in December by-elections.

Ma has suffered from domestic political blunders, including a beef import
flap and a less-than-stellar response to the massive suffering inflicted on
southern Taiwan - a DPP stronghold - by Typhoon Morakot.

But his Achilles' heel appears to be his relation with the mainland.

The keystone of PRC-Taiwan cooperation - the Economic Cooperation Framework
Agreement, a free-trade pact that would match Beijing's deal with the
Association of Southeast Asian Nations - has turned into a political pinata,
with Taiwanese opinion increasingly suspicious that Ma is giving away the
store in the closed-door meetings, to secure his own political advantage.

The DPP is aggressively opposing the deal, arguing that it will lead to the
importation of every unsavory mainland influence, from low-wage competition
to shoddy goods to marriage partners who will dilute Taiwan's cultural
identity.

The KMT's own polling shows that the DPP's leader, Tsai Ing-wen, enjoys
higher approval ratings than Ma. [4] There is also a widespread lack of
enthusiasm or understanding for the agreements signed with the PRC.

In an attempt to turn the situation around, Ma will soon debate Tsai on
television.

Beijing will hope for the best - and try to prop up Ma's fortunes in the
run-up to the 2012 elections by discretely deploying the political and trade
resources at its disposal.

Nevertheless, given the collapse of Chinese identity politics on Taiwan as a
driver for reunification - or even more intimate political and economic
ties - Beijing has to consider the possibility that it will soon face an
anti-Chinese Taiwan-chauvinist DPP government in Taipei, one that enjoys the
sympathy of an electorate that, for the most part, considers itself
exclusively Taiwanese.

Therefore, in a few short years, China may find itself dealing with
militantly pro-independence regimes, backed by a considerable swath of
public opinion, in both Taiwan and Tibet.

In this case, Beijing would want the United States to play a new role.

Instead of merely refraining from enabling and encouraging dependent Taiwan
and Tibetan exile proxies from making trouble for China in the service of US
geopolitical goals - as was the case in the 1970s during the Nixon-Kissinger
detente - Washington may be expected to honor its one-China policy in a
different way: by restraining indigenous independence movements and their
potential allies.

>From Beijing's point of view, the worst-case scenario would involve a
right-wing government coming to power in India and encouraging a
pro-independence Tibetan government in exile to make some commotion inside
China; or the rise to power of one of the conservative nationalist factions
in Japan that has close ties to the DPP and a taste for playing the Taiwan
card.

Add to that the Europeans' penchant for principled meddling on behalf of
democracy and human rights, and the potential for a major headache for
Beijing is manifest.

Ironically, the United States may be called on to stand against democracies
in Taiwan, India, Japan, Europe and the Tibetan diaspora movement and wield
its influence as the decisive factor in deterring challenges to PRC
territorial integrity that threaten the very foundations of the regime.

Given American political realities and a bipartisan desire to see the PRC
join the Soviet Union on the scrap heap of authoritarian multinational
empires, this may be too much to ask.

But, by obtaining the Obama administration's reaffirmation of the one-China
policy, Beijing has acquired a measure of the political and diplomatic
assurances it will need to navigate the dangerous transitions ahead.

Notes

1. US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg Reiterates the One China
Policy, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mar 30.
2. Identity, Chinese Identity, Election Studies Center of National Chengchi
WAITING FOR MANGTSO, Shadow Tibet, Mar 22. 3. Taiwanese University, December
2009.
4. The approval ratings of Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai Ing-wen, Kuomintang
Official Website, Dec 25, 2009.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with
US foreign policy.
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