The Dalai Lama: A Boon for China's Vision?

7 MINS READDec 14, 2017 | 09:00 GMT
The Dalai Lama addresses students in Mumbai, India, on Dec. 8, 2017. How Beijing and the aging spiritual leader approach their differences will shape the future course of the exiled Tibetan government and the regional balance of power between China and India.

The Dalai Lama addresses students in Mumbai, India, on Dec. 8, 2017. It's been three years since the Dalai Lama, the traditional high priest of Tibetan Buddhism, last had direct contact with China, but the 58-year estrangement may be reaching a turning point again.


  • As the Dalai Lama ages, and the issue of his succession looms, the future course of the Tibetan movement will become more uncertain.
  • China will leverage the Dalai Lama's desire to return to Tibet for negotiations in the hopes of managing certain issues, such as the spiritual leader's succession, and preventing any upheaval in Tibet or insurrections by exiled Tibetans based in neighboring India.
  • The Tibetan government-in-exile, for its part, will prioritize dialogue to prevent the splintering, and weakening, of the Tibetan movement.

It's been three years since the Dalai Lama, the traditional high priest of Tibetan Buddhism, last had direct contact with China, but the 58-year estrangement may be reaching a turning point again. Recent reports revealed that Samdhong Rinpoche — the Dalai Lama's personal emissary and former prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamshala, India — had made a discreet visit to Kunming, China, in November. There have been other subtle developments between the two sides: The Dalai Lama recently offered several public conciliatory gestures, intimating his hope to return to his Tibetan homeland and reiterating his disinterest in seeking Tibetan independence. He also appointed two emissaries to represent his "global engagement" as a way to ease Beijing's concerns over his political role in the cause for Tibetan autonomy. Former U.S. President Barack Obama also met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Dalai Lama over three days in December, casting suspicions that he was delivering messages between Beijing and Dharamshala. These events potentially indicate that the long-stalled and repeatedly failed negotiations between Beijing and the Dalai Lama could soon resume.

It's still too early to tell if any formal dialogue between the Chinese and exiled Tibetan governments will happen, let alone solve their many concerns. Beijing has been suspicious of the Dalai Lama for decades, wary of his intentions and whether they could undermine China's authority in Tibet. Longstanding issues — the status of the Tibetan government-in-exile and 200,000 Tibetan expatriates, the authority of the Dalai Lama and his eventual succession plan, to name a few — remain. The Dalai Lama is getting older, too, and it's hastening uncertainty over how the Tibetan self-determination movement will unfold once the Dalai Lama's era of leadership comes to an end. Yet it's also an opportunity for the two to align some of their shared interests in the face of changing dynamics involving the Dalai Lama and Beijing, such as the increasingly divided overseas Tibetan community and a more assertive India. How Beijing and the Dalai Lama work through their differences will be critical for the Tibetan religion, the course of the Tibetan government-in-exile, and the regional balance of power between China and India.

Past Lives

The Dalai Lama became the political and spiritual symbol of the Tibetan self-determination movement in 1959 in the midst of the Tibetan uprising against China's rule. He, along with tens of thousands of his followers, eventually settled in the city of Dharamshala in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh and garnered international fame for continuing the fight for greater Tibetan autonomy. Over time, the Dalai Lama came to represent the Tibetan identity and cause, the estrangement between Beijing and its largest and most important buffer region, and a key source of contention between China and India. His enormous sway over indigenous Tibetans and generations of Tibetan exiles, meanwhile, kept an otherwise disparate expatriate community intact. The Dalai Lama's fame also helped put the more extremist and pro-independence elements in check under his "Middle Way" approach in dealing with Beijing.

But as the Dalai Lama ages, and the issue of his succession looms, the future course of the Tibetan movement becomes more uncertain. Many in the exiled Tibetan government fear the overseas community will be unable to maintain its international clout and cohesion as a group, weakening its resolve to demand an autonomous Tibet. Moreover, along with its rising global influence, China's attempts to undermine and isolate the Tibetan movement have been successful over the years, even despite the Dalai Lama's efforts. Both Tibetan protests and attempts to reach a settlement with Beijing have failed to achieve the movement's goal, dividing its members, particularly along generational lines, over the effectiveness of the Dalai Lama's "Middle Way" approach.

Younger Tibetans, for example, have begun to advocate for permanent exile in India, a marked shift from the older generation, which has always viewed its exile as only temporary. Other younger Tibetans are seeking more extreme and even militant approaches for Tibetan independence. And while Beijing has long calculated that the eventual absence of the Dalai Lama will leave the Tibetan movement weaker, it's also concerned that India-based insurrections by extremist wings in a post-Dalai Lama era would influence Tibetan affairs. Moreover, China fears how the Indian government might exploit the situation. If the recent excursions on the Doklam Plateau near Bhutan are any indication, it reveals the growing geopolitical rivalries among the two rising powers of the Indo-Pacific.

Another key source of contention between Beijing and the Dalai Lama is the Dalai Lama's succession process. The Dalai Lama has tried to split his political and spiritual leadership roles to legitimize a more representative governance of the exiled Tibetan community to prevent a power vacuum and disruption in the Tibetan movement. Nevertheless, the selection of the next spiritual leader, which is based on the concept of reincarnation or the rebirth of the high priest's soul in another body, has become central in the debates with Beijing. China is determined that there never again be a Dalai Lama with the present one's stature, and in a bid to further weaken the Dalai Lama's influence over succession, has been preparing to select its own reincarnation of the religious leader. The Dalai Lama has entertained the idea of reincarnation as well — whether the next Dalai Lama would be found outside Tibet, or among his appointed trustees or even if the practice should be abandoned outright. But by leaving his plan ambiguous, the Dalai Lama is also leaving room for negotiations with Beijing.

The Next Incarnation

All of the recent developments come on the heels of China's 19th Party Congress, where Xi was able to attain unprecedented political power. Hopes were high for some political settlements between Beijing and the Dalai Lama at the beginning of Xi's first term. But suspicions amid persisting self-immolation protests among Tibetan monks, largely dampened prospects, particularly as Beijing was focused on consolidating its political power over its regions, industries and bureaucracies. Meanwhile, the Tibetan government-in-exile has also been calibrating its strategies through what it calls the "Five-Fifty Vision." The strategy envisaged a five-year strategy for returning to dialogue with China and the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet, and preparing for a 50-year struggle to "fulfill the aspirations of the Tibetan people" if needed.

Beijing has largely completed its political consolidation and Dharamshala is clearly prioritizing dialogue as a near-term goal. There's an opportunity for both sides to work out some key issues, but it's a limited window given the Dalai Lama's age. Beijing has always insisted that any dialogue must limit the Dalai Lama's personal status instead of his political role, and has never accepted any condition for Tibetan autonomy as a basis for talks. As Beijing leverages the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet for negotiations, questions also arise as to whether the Dalai Lama is willing or able to rein in the rifts within the Tibetan government-in-exile and prevent radicalization of the movement — a core concern to Beijing. In addition, any prospect for dialogue will inevitably involve issues of the settlement of exiled Tibetans and the Dalai Lama's succession plan. But with India looking to actively challenge the status of the border it shares with China, and with China seeking to avoid distractions from its rise as a global power, a rapprochement with the Dalai Lama may, in fact, be a boon to China's long-term vision.

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