The global political scenario is amazingly changing in China’s favour. Nowhere is this so symptomatic than the way Beijing is able to win the war against its arch-enemy the Dalai Lama. It appears Beijing has finally managed to pin the Tibetan leader down by deploying every political prowess and economic arsenal to constrict his global outreach.
The Chinese leaders hated him for knocking China’s global image for decades. They called him names like snake, demon, evil and “splittist” for plotting China’s breakup.
Until recently, international pressure worked to get a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Beijing going. No longer now. The leaders in the West, who propped him up once as an “ascetic Buddhist superstar” and used him for domestic electoral gains, as also to win market access in China, are abandoning him one by one.
They know Tenzin Gyatso is ageing and he can no longer give strong punches to Beijing. As he has turned 80 this year, he is left to fight his lonely battle at the fag-end of his life.
No wonder the Dalai Lama had to be admitted to Mayo Clinic in Rochester in September when the world leaders including Pope Francis met for the annual UNGA meeting in New York. No details came about his mystery health probe except advised him to rest.
The West’s economic downturn turned the game for China. Beijing no longer feels compelled to entertain anyone on Tibet. Instead, it calls the shot; frowns on those who meet the Tibetan leader and punish them through an assortment of coercive diplomatic measures. Call it bully-diplomacy or realpolitik, no country, big or small, wants to face Beijing’s wrath. Instead, they prefer the “quiet diplomacy” to win over China.
The world has seen how the United Kingdom, the epitome of freedom and democracy, grovelled to Beijing recently. David Cameron mended his way after rebuked by China for meeting the Dalai Lama in 2012. Unable to jeopardise billions of dollars of investment and trade, he afforded red carpet treatment to Xi Jinping. Even Prince Charles bowed before what he once called China’s “appalling old waxwork” leader.
In 2001, a dozens of leaders received the Dalai Lama; 21 between 2005-2008; since 2009 that count dropped to two. In 2013, he met only the heads of Lithuania and Poland.
Germany and France no longer provoke China. Australia, the Netherlands, and New Zealand stopped entertaining him since 2007. Those who snubbed him recently include Denmark, Pope Francis, South Africa and even Norway that conferred him with the Nobel Prize 26 years ago.
Except Japan, no other Buddhist countries invite the Dalai Lama. Even Mongolia, from where the title Dalai (Ocean) was conferred by Mongol Khan in the 16th century, stalled his visit last year.
Strangely, the United States under the Barack Obama administration has been giving a frosty welcome to the Dalai Lama; getting him to the White House through a side entrance and exit him through back doors — at times into a “mound of trash.”
In a first, Obama met with the Dalai Lama publicly in September, but at the National Prayer Breakfast where the US President referred to him only as a practitioner of “compassion”. It seems even the photo-op practice was dropped. What a comedown indeed.
Tibet was once a strong pretext for the foreign powers to block China out of international forums, but they are today afraid to bring up Tibet even in discussions with China.
The issue bears so much on China’s sensitivity that Beijing doesn’t even spare artists and singers who have links with the Tibet campaign. The list of those whose shows are nixed included the Los Angeles band Maroon 5, Icelandic singer Bjork, Oasis Gigs, Elton John and others.
In his host nation India, the BJP initially shocked Beijing by inviting a Tibetan delegation to the swearing-in ceremony of the new government. The Dalai Lama and PM Modi had an extremely guarded meeting in August last year. The Dalai Lama was escorted into 7, Race Course Road through a side entrance. The media reported the meeting had gone off badly and the Dalai Lama looked “shaken” by the encounter.
Clearly, the Modi government seems to be carefully weighing the “Tibet card”, i.e., the utility, sustainability, strategic costs and benefits of the Dalai Lama’s presence vis-à-vis the need for opening a new page with China, etc. Interestingly, Modi is keen to re-energise India’s own Buddhist heritage to make an impact in Asia including China.
At the same time and in a marked departure, the Modi government has taken a nuanced position by sending Cabinet ministers to Dharamsala to attend the Tibetan events.
Surely, the Dalai Lama must be sensing the change and would be annoyed as well. He might have pointed out something when he went to California to celebrate his 80th birthday this year. He told India Today in a veiled manner that he would rather “go home to Tibet, as well as meet his friend Xi Zhongxun’s son, President Xi Jinping”. The Dalai Lama also flagged the boundary issue with a thinly guised signal to both Beijing and New Delhi.
It must be a troubling phase for a man who achieved such phenomenon popularity as a famous global star. The Tibetan leader spent life in the midst of Hollywood celebrity backers like Richard Gere, Paris Hilton, Russell Brand and Sharon Stone, among others. Surely, he made Tibetan Buddhism famous worldwide. But his vociferously-led Tibet campaign reached nowhere. He seemed to understand this reality and sought to settle for autonomy status within the Chinese Constitution, but Beijing remains blasé and even stopped talking to his interlocutors since 2010.
A glimmer of hope was raised when Xi Jinping came to power. The Dalai Lama had reasons to embrace a sense of optimism, for he hoped that his past association with President’s father Xi Zhongxun, coupled with the President’s fascination for the Tibetan culture and Buddhist members in his family would help a gentle embrace. The plan by him for a pilgrimage tour to the Wutai Shan in Shanxi Province gained fresh currency. In fact, many concluded a propitious condition for a settlement had arrived.
Quite the reverse, a new hardening of policy got illustrated this year: during the 50th anniversary of TAR, the Sixth Tibet Work Forum (TWF) and White Paper on Tibet gave no indications of Xi changing tack on Tibet. He, in fact, wanted a “war” against the Dalai’s “clique” and preparations for choosing the Dalai Lama’s successor.
For China’s top leadership, Tibet has entered a “golden age”, and stability there has to be placed above “economic development”.
For the Chinese media, the Dalai Lama is a “cruel ruler in exile”, a “cheater” whose “imaginary Tibet” perhaps the “world’s longest lie” does not exist. The Western forces that “plotted” a Nobel Prize for him always wanted Tibetans to remain as “aborigines”, therefore, rejecting modernity in Tibet as a “destruction”. The “lie will disappear” once China takes the centre-stage, the media believed.
Unfortunately, the clock is ticking for the Dalai Lama. To be sure, he has a plan and so does China as to what lies next. But for now, the two seems to be playing the game of patience and playing for time. For its part, China would wait for the 14th Dalai Lama to die and perhaps hopes to get his soul transferred to China according to its plan.
The Dalai Lama certainly disavowed a violent course, but patience would be fraying among his followers. Exploring their disruptive potential is a possibility and this could start with the succession crisis and when grief among believers takes a frenzied turn. Many Tibetans like to forewarn China that it will regret not settling matters with this Dalai Lama.
A sentiment of this sort is also prevalent among many Chinese who doubt Beijing’s current policy would bring about long-lasting stability and, therefore, favour a settlement now. In fact, in a game of manoeuvring, the Dalai Lama is seemingly galvanising support among the Chinese Buddhists. But hoping to get political support from them would be a fallacy.
The prospects for the future are indeed bleak. The decades of negotiation remain futile and have not reached anywhere and the Dalai Lama seems left with no cards to bargain with Beijing.
Clearly, the Communist leaders remain unyielding as they still nurture a deep anger against the Tibetan leader for hurting them badly, and hold him responsible for denting the legitimacy of China’s global rise. Any further conciliatory posture by him can hardly be a smart move, considering Beijing has withstood the worst.
Beijing, in its last move on the chessboard, may possibly allow him to return to Tibet, provided he accepts Tibet and Taiwan as parts of China and that he comes back only as a spiritual leader. Concession for the Dalai Lama then would be to have a say in choosing his successor.
Clearly, Tibet for China means the inclusion of Arunachal Pradesh. The Dalai Lama’s endorsement of this position, for whatever quid pro quo, would hit the bottom of India-China boundary negotiations on the basis of the McMahon Line.
The stakes for the Dalai Lama’s future are big in geopolitics. His health report is already a major intelligence secret for many countries.
The Chinese understand that the post-Dalai Lama ramifications could risk further instability in Tibet. They have a mechanism under Order No. 5 in place to regulate the reincarnation process, but complexity involved in refreshing the dead soul, steeped in centuries of Tantric tradition, plus the rhetoric around it could also make China’s task difficult. The party has been holding “closed-door” meetings. Xi Jinping has ordered to pick the next Dalai Lama and “take corrective action” if things do not go well.
For the world outside, little can be done to keep the hopes of the Tibetans up. The subtext of the future of the Dalai Lama is as the Americans finally conveyed to him at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington that his significance lay in him being an undisputed spiritual world leader.
And as for the long-term future of Tibet, much would depend on how much he could raise the “profile of Tibetan culture in exile”. That is why he is asserting his influence in a spotted place like Ladakh where he feels comfortable and where he visits regularly.
P. Stobdan is a former ambassador and currently a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.