Today, leaders of the Tibetan exile community gather in Dharamsala for the next meeting of the group (the “Task Force on Negotiations”) that makes decisions on the Tibetans’ approach to engagement with the Chinese government. It is the 26th meeting of the Task Force, according to the Kashag, and the fourth since Sikyong Lobsang Sangay took office.
This Task Force meeting comes at a potential inflection point in Tibetan-Chinese relations. It has been three and a half years since the last formal meeting between the envoys of the Dalai Lama and their Chinese counterparts (the Ninth Round, held in January 2010 in Beijing). Since then, the dialogue has been on hold, if not moribund.
A lot has changed since that early 2010 dialogue round. In 2011, the Dalai Lama relinquished his formal political role. Lobsang Sangay won election as Kalon Tripa (now Sikyong) and became head of government of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA). The two envoys resigned. New leadership emerged in Beijing, under President Xi Jinping. And more than 120 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in acts of protest.
The entity that has imposed for itself the mandate to govern inside Tibet — the Chinese Communist Party — is the one that has the responsibility to improve conditions in Tibet. The new Chinese leadership has given no signal thus far that it is willing to modify its hard-line policies in Tibetan communities. Likewise, the Chinese government repeats its long-standing line on dialogue with Tibetans – that they are willing to talk, but only on their terms.
Per usual, the static Chinese position leads observers to expect the Tibetans to make the next move. And the path that led to this Task Force meeting further raises expectations that the Tibetans will have something new to offer.
In his August 8, 2013, statement marking the start of his third year as Sikyong, Lobsang Sangay referred to his “three-phased strategy of consolidation, action and dialogue.” Saying that the first two phases had been completed, the Sikyong said “the CTA will now direct its efforts on the dialogue phase and pledged to make continued efforts to resume contact with the Chinese government and take initiatives to educate the international community, including Tibetans, on the Middle Way Approach.”
During his first two years in office, Sikyong Lobsang Sangay has explained the CTA’s approach and desire to resume dialogue – that they are ready “anywhere, anytime” to talk and that they put “substance over process.” He has shared this position with diplomats, parliamentarians, opinion leaders, and policy experts in capitals around the world.
Now that the CTA, by its own admission, has entered the dialogue phase of its approach, a greater burden falls on the Task Force to come up with an outcome-based strategy. If previous meetings are any guide, the Task Force will not emerge from its three days of meetings and publicly announce a detailed strategy. Diplomatic discretion will prevail.
When Lobsang Sangay resumes his travels to capitals, he will likely debrief policy-makers who will want to hear details of the CTA’s foreign policy and how it plans to overcome China’s refusal to deal directly with the CTA. Those will be closed-door meetings, giving the Sikyong the opportunity to take them into confidence and ask for help and guidance.
At the same time, the CTA also has to sell its foreign policy publicly, to an array of audiences — his voting constituency in the diaspora, his non-voting constituency in Tibet, international governments and media outlets, the Indian government and media, and, perhaps most importantly, the Chinese people and the Chinese leadership. The Sikyong must balance dual and sometimes conflicting roles, as both leader of a movement, where the emphasis is on unity, and as leader in a democracy, where he must navigate diversity and criticism. Overlaying these is his role as chief diplomat, in which he must balance elements of publicity and discretion to advance the interests of his nation and people.
Sikyong Lobsang Sangay’s first two years in office have shown him to be readily able to communicate and engage with diverse audiences. He has stepped into the cradle of support for Tibet built up by those who came before him, and has established his own profile. Supporters of Tibet stand ready to offer their best efforts to help the CTA advance its foreign policy goals. The CTA faces the burden of expectations that the current Task Force meeting will craft a strategy that will lead to a diplomatic initiative which friends, and friendly governments, can get behind and push forward – and, most importantly, that Tibetans inside Tibet can invest hope in.