By Dr. Tenzin Lhadon
On May 20th, 2024, Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) will be sworn in as the 8th President of the Republic of China (Taiwan) in a ceremony that will be closely watched not just by its allies, but more importantly by the almost Sauron like fiery Eye of Beijing. The DPP’s third consecutive presidential victory and fifth overall elicited a wave of positive acknowledgment from other “separatists’ factions”, a favored term of Beijing, including the Tibetan exile leadership, East Turkistan supporters, and Hong Kong advocates. The Dalai Lama’s congratulatory message for Lai underscored the importance of Taiwan’s “exercise of democracy” as “a source of encouragement for all of us who aspire to live in freedom and dignity”. On his X account (formerly Twitter), the President of the Central Tibetan Administration, Penpa Tsering, drew a parallel between the Tibetan exile polity and Taiwan, stating that “As a democracy in exile, Tibetans profoundly admire the spirit of self-determination exemplified by the people of Taiwan”.
Taiwanese and Tibetans are connected through the practice of Buddhism, and a small community of Tibetans and Tibetan monks reside in Taiwan, albeit with legal issues surrounding their residency. Politically, the two have always been entwined vis-à-vis their relations with the PRC. In her X post, the outgoing President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, expressed gratitude to the Dalai Lama for his recognition of “the importance of our exercise of democracy in Taiwan to freedom and dignity worldwide”. Both Taiwan and Tibet pose a security problem for China precisely because they challenge Beijing’s perception of its sovereignty and legitimacy to rule. The late Prof. Dawa Norbu noted that the Communist Party of China sees several similarities between Taiwan and Tibet in terms of the past and present issues that inform its vicious diatribe against the two.The DPP’s first presidential victory in 2000 was built upon the emergence of a wave of native Taiwanese nationalism replacing the then-ruling Kuomintang party that continued to talk about a unified “China” albeit with a different leadership. Both the incumbent President, Tsai Ing-wen, and the newly elected President on January 13, Lai Ching-te, belong to the generation of Taiwanese born in Taiwan with a strong sense of Taiwanese national identity. Under such historical and present circumstances of an increasingly assertive Taiwanese identity and interests, separate from China, and an apparent blossoming relationship between Tibetans in exile and Taiwan, one would be predisposed to believe that the Tibet issue will be prominently figured in these changing realities of Taiwanese socio-politics, leading to significant progress in Tibet – Taiwan relations.
Despite such optimistic assumptions for the future, the reality remains that for Taiwan’s leadership, whether it be the DPP or Kuomintang, the cross–straits relationship has always been prioritized over its support for the Tibetan National Movement (or even the Hong Kong or East Turkistan movements), and while its civil society has fostered and shared platforms with the latter, such transnational solidarity has been absent from Taipei’s public statements or actions. It is no wonder that while Tsai Ing–wen gushes over the Dalai Lama’s support for Taiwan’s exercise of democracy, she never contemplated meeting the Tibetan leader even once during her eight years in office, despite repeated requests to do so from Tibetans and sections of Taiwanese society. While former Presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian met the Dalai Lama in 1997 and 2001 respectively, Tsai’s refusal to follow in their footsteps disappointed many who believed her presidency would signal a shift from the conciliatory approach towards Beijing of her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou with regards to the Tibet issue. Ironically the Dalai Lama’s third visit to Taiwan in 2009 occurred during Ma Ying-jeou’s Presidential tenure, a KMT stalwart and a favorite of the CCP. When Tsai succeeded him as a DPP leader, with a perceived image of a staunch bulwark against Beijing, the Dalai Lama’s visa to visit Taiwan in order to attend the 2019 Taiwan International Religious Freedom Forum and on the request of many other supporters was denied. Although her government denied even having received a visa application, RFA’s interviews with participants of the forum confirmed that the Dalai Lama was invited but he was unable to attend due to interventions of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council. In my interview with the then Representative of Taipei’s Tibet Office and the current Director of the Tibet Policy Institute, Dawa Tsering, he revealed that prior to the Dalai Lama’s scheduled visit, his office received numerous correspondence from various channels imploring the Office of Tibet and thus the Dalai Lama to refrain from applying for the Taiwan visa in order to avoid antagonizing and suffering retaliation from Beijing. After much deliberations with the Dalai Lama, it was decided to comply with their requests. There was no public statement of rejection of the Dalai Lama’s proposed visit, and the Taiwan government maintained the position that they hadn’t received any application, a claim that was devoid of the actual context in which the decision was made.
The Tibet-Taiwan-China triangular relationship is commonly understood as a complex nexus, and that complexity and stagnancy persist even if China is ‘taken’ out of the equation, despite the impossibility of doing so in reality. Since the occupation of Tibet and the establishment of the Tibetan exile community in India and Nepal, the ROC, under Kuomintang, continued to maintain secretive relations with Tibetans inside and outside Tibet, and a rising antagonistic relationship with the Tibetan exile leadership, particularly with regards to the activities of the ROC’s Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission (MTAC). It was the visit of the Dalai Lama to Taipei in 1997 that signaled a significant warming and shift in these relations, which was followed by two other visits in 2001 and 2009. Although the controversial vocational training program, run by the MTAC, for Tibetans from India to Taiwan, ended in 1999, following the visit of the Dalai Lama several Tibetans have moved to Taiwan either as part of individual ventures or for religious purposes. The institutionalization of this relationship was formalized in the establishment of the Office of Tibet in Taipei, immediately following the visit of the Dalai Lama in 1997.
However, Tibet and Tibetans continue to be obscured in the public perception of Taiwanese social and political demographic, whether it be due to the overwhelming presence of the cross–strait tension or the “government’s restriction of information on Tibet”. During my year-long stay in Taiwan in 2017 as a Research Fellow, I encountered a similar reaction from the Taiwanese students, and general populace with regards to Tibet. I was rather amused by their wonder of seeing a Tibetan who was not a monk. On further pressing them on the matter, they spoke about how in their school textbooks, Tibetans were portrayed as individuals who lived on high mountains, with dark sun burnt skin and rosy cheeks. Their incredulous surprise on seeing a Tibetan woman who did not fit this mold was shocking, to say the least, displaying a severe lack of awareness of Tibet and Tibetans, which was compounded by the existence of such racial stereotypes. It would be too simplistic to condense it down to a mere lack of engagement at the policy level, but the reality remains that outside of Buddhism, Tibet, and Tibetans have not received a nuanced and realistic focus at various levels of Taiwanese society.
Was Tibet an independent country before its occupation by Communist China? Does it have the right to be one in the future? These questions lie at the core of the Tibet – Taiwan relationship. I spoke at the Geneva Forum in 2023, on the “One China” narrative in International Relations, and how Beijing’s push for its discourse with limited international resistance adds to its legitimacy and diplomatic muscle. Nicole Su, the Director General of the Taipei Cultural and Economic Delegation in Geneva, wholeheartedly agreed with this observation, and the continuing presence of Taiwan’s representatives in such CTA-led forums speaks to the mutual interests that bind the two. Sikyong Penpa Tsering of the CTA, in his 2021 meeting with the Taiwanese Representative to India, Baushuan Ger, highlighted the mutual interest and concerns of the Tibetan and Taiwanese people.
However, this “camaraderie” does not reappear in the Taiwanese government’s official position on Tibet. Taiwan and Tibet “stand together” when it comes to opposing China but on a governmental level there has never been any indication of any support for Tibet’s “core issue” which is freedom from Communist occupation or the official position of the CTA i.e. genuine autonomy under the Middle Way Approach. Both the ROC and PRC claim Tibet as part of China, and while the KMT and the CCP have disagreed vehemently over the governance of China, both have not supported any change in Tibet’s present occupied status. The DPP, unlike the KMT, has moved away from any vestigial ambitions of replacing the CCP as China’s government and has solely focused on governing Taiwan as a separate entity from the PRC. However, it has continued to maintain its silence on Tibet, and its political future to avoid antagonizing its cross-straits neighbor. This absence of reciprocity on its “mutual interest” with Tibetans is a major limitation in any hope of translating the relationship into a position of potential strength.
Such limitations have been materialized in the striking difference of support or acknowledgment of Tibet and Tibetans between the political leadership in Taipei and Taiwan’s Civil Society. While the engagement and solidarity between Tibetan exile society and Taiwan’s NGOs have increased in recent years (such as the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy and a few DPP legislative members), the same cannot be said for the Taiwanese political leadership. During Tsai-Ing Wen’s presidency, the Dalai Lama did not make a single visit to the country, despite its strong Buddhist population. While Tsai refused to meet the Tibetan and global leader as Taiwan’s President, she did not harbor such reservations during her meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2009 when she was still rising in the ranks of her party and Taiwan’s political leadership. She has even participated in Tibet support rallies, but that level of support was drastically reduced once she became President.
Tibet and the Tibetan issue receive solidarity not just from Taiwan’s NGOs, but also through its political sector, but that is limited to the lower rungs of the latter. It remains to be seen whether Lai Ching-te will seek to either emulate Tsai Ing-wen, the President of the Republic of China, or Tsai Ing-wen before her rise to the Presidency. Dawa Tsering, during our interview, noted that Lai Ching – te during his time as Mayor of Tainan City, visited the Office of Tibet to express gratitude for the Dalai Lama’s aid for the earthquake that devastated his city. His Vice President-elect, Hsiao Bi-khim, has frequently participated in Free Tibet rallies and served as Vice-Chair of the Taiwanese Parliamentary Group for Tibet when she was a Member of Parliament. Similar to Tsai-Ing wen’s ‘promotion’ from a DPP member to President, it would be too much of a stretch of one’s hope for Taiwan, under the new leadership of Lai and Hsiao, to acknowledge Tibet’s inherent right to determine its future. However, the Taiwanese Government’s policies vis-à-vis its allies not just Tibetans, but also Hong Kongers, Uyghurs, and Mongolians will be a litmus test of its mettle against Beijing’s aggressive demands for integration.
 Uncle Sam (1976), Taiwan and Tibet, Tibetan Review, Vol. XI Nos. 1&2, January-February 1976
I&2, pp. 18-19, 25
 Uncle Sam (1976), Taiwan and Tibet, Tibetan Review, Vol. XI Nos. 1&2, January-February 1976
I&2, pp. 18-19, 25
(Views expressed are her own)
The author is currently a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute (TPI), a think tank under the Central Tibetan Administration. She has completed her PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).