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Trump and Tibetans
[Saturday, February 11, 2017 22:49]
By Wangpo Tethong

A lot of things have been written on Trump and China so far and there is surely more to come.[1] Some experts who have been working on China for decades seem to be worried and some others clueless about the Trump administration’s future course.[2] Tibetans and their supporters while dwelling on the subject of future US-China developments and what it means for Tibet face similar problems. It may be wise to maintain a sense of realism and not to be carried away by hopes of Trump producing marvellous solutions for Tibet or to be unreasonably derogatory about this new US administration.

Having said this, there is no question that we should be extremely vigilant and be prepared for every development and seize the one opportunity that may change the course of events.
There are some more specific questions that need immediate reaction and should be carefully looked into. I tried to identify some of these pressing issues. The first issue is a meeting of Trump with H.H. the Dalai Lama.

Dalai Lama wishes to meet Donald Trump
We do not know what H.H. the Dalai Lama thinks exactly about this. While in Mongolia in November 2016, he expressed his wish to meet President Trump without being specific about the time frame. On the other hand, we have seen some comments by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) suggesting that an early meeting is appreciated. Moreover, CTA has welcomed Rex Tillerson’s response to a list of questions posed by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Tillerson basically reiterates the US policy held by successive US administrations before.

Should the Dalai Lama meet Trump at this early stage or wait till it’s safer to tell what the Trump administration is heading for? Trump himself has announced some major shifts in US-China relations without giving a real clue on how this would effect Tibet. It makes a lot of sense to meet Trump as early as possible, I assume, provided there is a clear understanding what we want from the Trump administration and what they are expecting from the Tibetans, and from the Dalai Lama.

As for now, there are still no indications for a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Beijing and therefore our goals should focus on other areas where progress is achievable at the moment: Strengthening our internal setup in exile and Tibet, revive our supporter base in Asia and in the West, and to find new allies for the Tibetan cause inside and outside China, without alienating our old friends. It would be wrong to meet Trump without checking these strategically important questions. The most difficult issue on the table, however, will be Trump’s challenge to Beijing’s “One-China” policy.

Trump’s challenging "One China” policy
Sikyong Lobsang Sangay, head of the CTA, has openly embraced the new elements that Trump brought in the US-China power equation. He said, referring to Trump’s criticism for the “One China” policy: “That was a very bold commentary coming from president-elect Donald Trump. We do think that boldness with substance is the right approach with the Chinese government.”[3]

This seems to be a new tone from Dharamsala, primarily fed by instinct and hopefully by the same amount of analysis. Though the CTA and the Dalai Lama have never openly endorsed Beijing’s stand on Taiwan, there are many instances that could be interpreted as an accommodation to China’s “One China” policy.[4]

Trump’s intentional disregard for China’s sensitivity on this core issue may very quickly overturn the principles laid down in the Taiwan Relations Act. This could have far reaching implications and could be the seed of a war. It is thinkable that the US’s new position on Beijing’s One China Policy will also lead to some heated internal Tibetan discussions and to a situation where the Sikyong and the Dalai Lama may have notable differences, i.e. to establish more direct and formal relations between Dharamsala to Taipei. It would therefore be better to discuss these issues thoroughly before meeting Trump and making public statements.

Dependency on US aid and political trade-offs

Tibetans and the CTA have become very dependent on US aid and it is very debatable if this is a healthy development. There is at the moment no indication that the Trump administration will link this aid to political trade-offs. But it is imaginable that many of these traditional US-American activities abroad will be reviewed because they are not in line with Trump’s slogan of “America’s First” and “Good Deal Making”. What will happen to the many programs that were enacted to carry America’s vision of a democratic and liberal society to the people of the world? What about the many foreign language services? Will they be funded in the same way and will there be new conditions attached to it from the US side? We do not know. What we know from the 50ties and 60ties is that US-American funding can be more of a curse than a blessing, especially when it dries out.

The majority of Tibetans who play an active part in the movement definitely are in conflict with Trump’s view of the world and his moral standards. Waterboarding, pussy grabbing and locking up political opponents are not the methods we want to see in the governance of the world. However, individual Tibetans may see this differently. There might be some who feel that Trump’s unconventional and controversial attitudes for established political norms are attractive. But, this is their individual opinion and it would be wrong to think of them as the majority. There is a much larger group, I guess, that disagrees with Trump on many issues but hopes for a change in Washington’s China policy that immensely benefited China’s economy since Bill Clinton’s disconnection of human rights from trade but did not lead to any improvements in Tibet and for human rights in China.

It is now the difficult task of the Dalai Lama to meet the new president and establish a good relationship for the benefit of all Tibetans. We shouldn’t be surprised to see images of Trump and the Dalai Lama enjoying themselves though it might be difficult to digest. This is how things go in the world of politics.


Dangerous Times
Experts fear a rapid deterioration of U.S. – China relations.[5] They are alarmed that the Trump administration could drift away on a dangerous collision course. Their judgment, however, is that the US won’t be able to simultaneously handle a multitude of conflicts (Taiwan, trade, North Korea, South China Sea) with China.

On the other hand, according to the majority of analysts, China’s military though it is catching up can’t match the US military force and won’t be able to support China’s political ambitions in the South China Sea.[6] There are many people who believe that a trade war may also end with more irreparable political and economic setbacks for China than for the US. Though it is difficult to appraise these predictions it is quite clear that the US will most probably recover better from a catastrophic Trump presidency than the CCP of a major failure by their leaders. If Trump fails it is one man who will be replaced in the next elections but if Xi fails the whole system is at stake.

Therefore, there are some good reasons to believe that a serious confrontation between China and the US will lead to lasting damage in China. Any sort of severe showdown, be it a military or a trade war will pose a threat to the survival of China’s Communist Party (CCP) and China as we know it today. The knowing of this risk makes Beijing vulnerable and presents to Tibetans an opportunity.

The scenarios that grow out of such an opportunity are unpredictable and range from a China wanting to ally with Tibetans to counterbalance Beijing-critical groups in Taiwan to a China in disarray led by a new political elite in a less nationalistic and centralistic fashion. We also should be aware of a Trump administration that could use Tibetans and other dissenting groups in China as a bargaining chip and then leave the arena after four years without having achieved anything but chaos.

While being aware about all the intricacies of international politics, of US-China relations and geopolitical factors it is important to understand that in the long run the most enduring support for us Tibetans will be the one based on values such as freedom, human rights, democracy and the people’s right for national self-determination. It looks like Trump’s new world is divided into winners and losers, supporters and enemies, and that there won’t be much understanding for small groups such as we Tibetans and our aspirations. The turmoil leading to this new world may offer us some opportunities but it will be also a very dangerous path to walk. Therefore, let us pray that our leaders guide us with wit, courage and wisdom through these troubled waters.




Note by author: On February 9, 2017 President Trump had a phone call with President Xi of China. A White House statement released on late Thursday, 9 February 2017 said: “The two leaders discussed numerous topics and President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our one-China policy.” It seems that Trump backed down from his relativisation of the one-China policy. Analysis and more information of further developments is needed before getting to a solid conclusion.


[1] I would like to thank Migmar Dhakyel, Tsedon Khangsar, Dechen Pemba, Tsewang Norbu, Tenam and Tenzin Sewo for their comments and edits on the first draft that was inspired by Kyinzom Dhongdue’s facebook post. I hope to initiate a debate that should be led by people who have more wisdom and knowledge than me.

[2] Prominent group of US China experts presented a report on U.S.-China Policy on February 7, 2017. On Tibet, there were no new recommendations. See here for the full report: http://asiasociety.org/

[3] See Interview Lobsang Sangay with Elizabeth Roche – Live Mint, 19 December 2016 www.livemint.com

[4] See for more Tibet, Taiwan and China – A Complex Nexus by Tshering Chonzom Bhutia in The Diplomat. www.thediplomat.com

[5] Trump’s China policy represents a very different approach compared to any other president. See here: www.theguardian.com



The writer is a Tibetan activist and a former member of Tibetan parliament from Europe constituency.


The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.

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