China sees US as hedge for Taiwan, Tibet
By Peter Lee
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
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
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
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
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
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". 
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
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
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 -
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: 
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.
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
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%. 
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.  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
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
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
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.