President Obama’s long-awaited meeting with the Dalai Lama takes place this week. And one can expect that the Washington media and punditocracy will be focused on the political calculus by Beijing and the Obama administration, as they wonder how this session factors into the increasingly fractious U.S./China relationship. But there is something else, arguably more important, at work here: the Dalai Lama's own political calculations. For him, this meeting will take place against a backdrop of renewed talks with China, and a new push by Beijing to pacify Tibet through a combination of increased economic development and continued repression. While it might be merely an entertaining sideshow in Washington’s political circus, this meeting plays a significant role in the Dalai Lama’s ongoing efforts to engage Beijing in serious negotiations on the future of Tibet.
The Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese government recently concluded their ninth round of talks since 2002 (the first session since Sino-Tibetan dialogue was suspended in November 2008). These talks broke down 15 months ago amid acrimony and recrimination, with the Tibetans frustrated by Beijing’s intransigence, while Beijing accused the Tibetan side of operating in bad faith. Based on the statements from both parties, it was clear that the latest talks did not meaningfully change those dynamics. The Tibetans told Reuters that there was “no shift in Beijing's stand,” while Chinese officials continued their attacks on the Dalai Lama and warned President Obama that he would “seriously undermine the political foundation of Sino-US relations” by meeting with him. Nonetheless, both sides also expressed a continued willingness to keep talking.
These talks occurred on the heels of the Fifth Work Forum on Tibet, a major conference on the Chinese Communist party’s management of Tibet policy that took place in Beijing January 18-23. Reporting in China’s state-run press on the Work Forum featured the usual glowing stories about the party’s “totally correct” approach to Tibet since its “peaceful liberation” by the People’s Liberation Army in 1949. President Hu Jintao spoke of a “special contradiction” that remained in Tibet, which he characterized as a conflict between the loyal multi-ethnic citizens of China and the “separatist forces led by the Dalai clique.” When Hu said that the party’s work on Tibet was vital to a “favorable international environment” for China, President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama was likely on his mind.
Notwithstanding this rhetoric, there are hints that the party’s “totally correct” policies are undergoing some subtle but potentially important changes. The conference pointedly covered not only the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), but also Tibetan areas in the provinces of Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan – together often referred to as historic or (derisively by the Chinese) “greater” Tibet. This is a potentially important development, since it relates to a major point of contention between Beijing and the Tibetans.
The Dalai Lama has strongly criticized the division of Tibet into 13 separate administrative units, rather than a single entity encompassing all Tibetan communities. Nearly all of Tibets autonomous counties and prefectures experienced protests during the 2008 uprising, including Tibetan areas in Qinghai and Gansu that were considered to enjoy relatively less repressive rule. Chinese officials characterize calls for a single Tibetan entity as an attack on Chinese sovereignty, often pointing to the Dalai Lama’s support for a single Tibetan entity for evidence of his efforts to “split” China and seize 30 percent of Chinese territory. Nonetheless, any move toward harmonization of policies for these areas would be a tacit recognition that the Tibetans’ arguments on this point have some validity.