By Tashi Rabgey
Ph.D. Candidate, Harvard University
They could have been unobtrusive about it. After all, tea parties marking the launch of non-governmental organizations are not generally presided over by heads of state. But the inauguration of the Taiwan Tibet Exchange Foundation (TTEF) was conducted with all the trappings of a major political event, complete with foreign guests flown in for the day and the attendance of the President himself.
In his keynote address, President Chen Shuibian made it clear that the point of the fanfare was to signal the normalization of relations between Taiwan and the Tibetan government-in-exile. While the Dalai Lama has maintained a representative office in Taiwan since his historic visit in 1997, tensions have periodically surfaced in the relations between the two parties. President Chen attributed this tension to his government’s practice of regarding Tibetans as dalu renshi – or, “people of the mainland”.
Through this disavowal of the Republic of China’s claim to sovereignty over Tibet, President Chen also undermined Taiwan’s cabinet-level Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission, long the cause of prickly relations with Tibetans in exile. By providing an alternative channel for direct interaction, the quasi-official TTEF is meant to displace the controversial – to say nothing of anachronistic – commission as the conduit for relations with the Tibetan exiled government. In so doing, the new foundation is expected to serve as the key institutional mechanism for the future development of Taiwan-Tibetan relations.
And yet, one might reasonably wonder: will this actually matter? The current Taiwanese government’s engagement with exiled Tibetans may seem to some no more than a dutiful nod to the politics of their days as the outlawed opposition. And the fact that Beijing has recently reopened a fresh round of talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama might seem to point to the complete irrelevance of the diplomatic breakthrough across the strait. One might well wonder about the actual significance of Taiwan-Tibetan relations in the present moment. Can this normalization have any meaningful political effects, and if so, in what ways might they prove to be factors in the larger dynamics of the region?
No doubt recent developments will trigger an angry reaction in Beijing. But the repercussions on both cross-strait and Sino-Tibetan relations will go beyond merely setting off yet another tirade from the Chinese leadership. President Chen’s declaration that Tibetans – and Mongolians – are not “people of the mainland” puts Beijing in a decidedly awkward position. Such a brazen provocation surely invites a verbal reprisal, and yet to do so would only further antagonize the Taiwanese mainstream. Beijing is no doubt wary of the fact that any sign of bullying on its part invariably pushes the Taiwanese public further toward separatist aspirations – something that tends to work in favor of President Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party. With the next Taiwanese presidential election just on the horizon, Beijing may find itself caught in a double bind.
The normalization of Taiwan-Tibetan relations might aggravate cross-strait tension in another way as well. It may in fact have the effect of strengthening a sense of Taiwanese consciousness by bringing into public focus the obsolescence of their inherited national story. While many Taiwanese have long been disheartened by their antiquated constitution and its many peculiarities, the mainstream public has preferred to deal with the problem by ignoring it. They may not be prepared to change their strategy any time soon, but the increased prominence of the Tibet issue in Taiwan will surely serve as a constant reminder of the obvious.
The repercussions of this diplomatic normalization on Sino-Tibetan relations will be less immediate but perhaps even more significant in the long run. If Taiwan’s strong public support of the Tibetan government-in-exile continues, then, in the event that current talks with Beijing should falter, the exiled Tibetan government can look across the strait not only for a diplomatic ally, but, more significantly, for a new channel through which to promote grassroots support for the Tibet issue. This will mean that for the first time in its history the Tibet movement will have found an effective voice in the Chinese-speaking world.
On a more abstract level, the normalization of this relationship matters to Tibetans because it is founded on a shared resistance to a particular story of the Chinese nation. The nineteenth century dream that Chen Shuibian rejected by redefining Tibetans and Mongolians as “not mainlanders” is precisely the same dream that today holds a powerful grip on the imagination inside mainland China. The decentering of this story matters to Tibetans because it is what constitutes the ideological bedrock legitimizing Chinese rule of Tibet. For now, the emergent story of a new Taiwanese nation may strike most Chinese as nonsensical, but its success in Taiwan’s mainstream consciousness will mean that a critique of Chinese nationalism exists in at least one vital corner of the Chinese cultural world. And this in turn can play a role in the protracted – and perhaps quixotic – Tibetan struggle to dislodge the monolithic nationalism that is currently pervasive among the mainland Chinese.
But perhaps the development of relations between Taiwan and Tibetans should matter most of all to the Chinese leadership. Indeed, if Beijing is paying serious attention, it might even stand to gain the most. This normalization of relations juxtaposes two sets of problems that Beijing has been determinedly trying to keep apart. However much Beijing might want to ignore the common questions posed by these intersecting problems – effectively obscuring their underlying issues in a mass of technical details about postal links or procedural rules about how certain lamas might live – this, in the end, may not be in their own best interests.
Distilled down, both the Taiwan and Tibet issues are about the question of power: that is, they challenge how power operates and they re-imagine how it might be differently configured. The current government in Beijing should take this question seriously because complex social and economic forces have long been pulling the Chinese state steadily apart from within. At this rate, it is only a matter of time before similar questions of power-sharing will be raised from within the current borders of its far-flung territories. What the development of Taiwan-Tibetan relations should do is alert Beijing to the importance of acknowledging this present reality. This in turn would create the conditions necessary for generating a serious discussion about conceptualizing a new – and sustainable – political framework for the region.
Tashi Rabgey can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org