The Dalai Lama’s Succession: Strategic Realities of the Tibet Question
Published on 16 May 2023
The 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso remains one of the most recognized and beloved spiritual leaders of contemporary times. By China, he is viewed in unflattering terms, ranging from being termed a “splittist” to a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
The question over the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation reflects the larger polemic ideological and political debates about the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) versus the Communist Party of China (CPC), religious freedom versus materialism, the sovereignty of Tibet versus China’s occupation of it, and history itself.
The CPC has put strategies in place to manage the post-Dalai era: From temple management rules and education policy changes to restrictions on travel by Tibetans, the Party’s strategies have laid the foundation for preparations to mitigate uncertainties associated with the succession process.
Such a post-Dalai strategy has massive implications not just for China’s international relations, but also the Tibet-China-India dynamic.
Geopolitically, Tibet’s invasion by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) unequivocally altered India-China relations, particularly impacting their boundary dispute, which is further connected to the Sino-Tibetan conflict. The continued political refuge of the 14th Dalai Lama and, by extension, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile (TGiE) in India has for decades impacted and strained their bilateral relations.
Delhi’s official Tibet policy is ambiguous with the intention of engaging with the Tibetans without enraging China. Amidst mounting pressure on India to take a firmer stance against Chinese intentions, New Delhi will need to cautiously sharpen its Tibet policy and capitalize on Beijing’s weaknesses, including lack of credibility vis-à-vis its reincarnation politics.
Not only is China worried about India leveraging its diplomatic influence for the Tibetan cause internationally, but when it comes to Tibet and its demands for independence, China seeks to control the institution of the Dalai Lama with the twin goals of protecting the One China principle and ensuring that there is no threat to Party loyalty.
Historians and Buddhist scholars have debated the veracity and influence of the reincarnation method vis-à-vis the tulkus system, but the Chinese government steadfastly claims that the latter remained subject to the approval of the Qing Empire, and thus stakes its historical assertion on the right to approve any future reincarnations.
The CPC’s historical assertion, supplemented with policy implementation, can be seen as an attempt to replace the authority of the religious institution of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism with that of the Party. Apart from the question of the historical or religious legitimacy of the CPC’s assertion, it is imperative to engage with its intent, beyond the reality that Beijing is increasingly curbing religious and cultural freedoms in Tibet and elsewhere.
Notwithstanding the Dalai Lama’s position in the reincarnation process, the Tibetan people in all probabilities will have two Dalai Lamas—one designated by their spiritual and temporal leader and the other by the PRC.
In the new era under Xi Jinping, the three core demands, which are those of the Dalai Lama “accepting Tibet as an inseparable part of China, abandoning ‘Tibet independence’, and stopping activities to split the motherland” have been reiterated and the Dalai Lama has been advised to “discard any illusion, face reality squarely, correct mistakes, and choose an objective and rational path.”
Xi Jinping’s confidence in his Tibet policy and its implementation might be insufficient in the wake of possible post-Dalai Lama radicalized politics. Beijing’s ‘Machiavellian’ calculus when it comes to dealing with the Dalai Lama’s influence in Tibet can be witnessed through the CPC’s strategy of marginalizing the Dalai Lama and the promotion of ‘red ideology’.
An international collaboration between India and ‘like-minded’ states on Tibet beyond humanitarian concerns is yet to be formed. This requires recalibration, especially as actors like Japan, Mongolia, Taiwan, Britain, the United States (U.S.) and the European Union (EU) have great interest in the Dalai Lama institution and will be impacted by its future.
Japan has not yielded to Chinese pressure regarding the Dalai Lama and Tibet, which is essentially due to the wide public reverence the Dalai Lama enjoys amongst the Japanese. Despite such veneration by the public and putting out policies on Tibet, the Japanese government provided limited assistance to Tibetans in exile, keeping in mind Japan’s relations with China.
Although politically there has not been much engagement between Taiwan and the TGiE, the Taiwanese government strategically allows for the democratically inclined civil society to form several non-governmental groups that openly support the Tibetan cause, which is perceived by the PRC government as a threat to Chinese national unity.
For Mongolia, the introduction of an eight-year-old Mongolian boy born in the U.S. as the reincarnation of Khalkha Jetsun Dhampa Rinpoché has thrust the nation into a state of collective anxiety surrounding the future succession of the Dalai Lama—a highly sensitive issue for China—and has challenged the very foundation of the independence of present-day Mongolia.
For EU nations, not only has the Tibet question boiled down to human rights in Tibet, but European governments do not have a particular view of Tibet’s future after the Dalai Lama and the TGiE was compelled to concede the demand for full independence.
In Sweden, how to manage relations with China and best affect its human rights situation are questions that are ever important in forums of public debate and for the Swedish government. Strong public concern for Tibet and admiration for the Dalai Lama would catapult the Tibet issue into the forefront and translate into policy in Sweden.
The Czech Republic has capitalized on the long term affinity with the Dalai Lama and Tibetans in exile by facilitating a string of high level meetings with the representatives of the TGIE, public outreach activities and co-sponsorship of a seminal blueprint for action on “geopolitics of reincarnation” at the United Nations.
Successive British governments have consistently expressed concerns about human rights in Tibet. Yet, despite Britain’s increasingly cool relations with China, the UK government has not taken a proactive stance against potential interference in the succession of the Dalai Lama by the CPC.
Washington has more actively pre-empted attempts by Beijing to meddle in the succession process and The Tibet Policy and Support Act, which was signed into law in 2020, codified this position.
China’s official media indicate that China now routinely calls on foreign governments to acknowledge China’s sole authority in the selection process for the next Dalai Lama and probably requires assurances that those nations will not host any candidate for 15th Dalai Lama on their soil.
China’s attention has also focused on Tawang, India, where the 6th Dalai Lama was born in 1683. China frequently claims that India and the exiles plan to recognize a successor to the Dalai Lama in Tawang, and presents each visit by the current Dalai Lama to the area as a signal of such a plan.
In the past, negotiations between Dharamshala and Beijing have taken place with the latter insisting it has always been about the personal status of the Dalai Lama and his possible return from exile to the homeland. The absence of any negotiations for more than a decade and the hardline stance by Communist party officials leave very little room for sincere dialogue and possible return of the Dalai Lama.
The fact that the TGiE still resides in India theoretically offers New Delhi a never-exercised, but not impossible, option of supporting the Tibetan independence claims to some degree.
To recognize the TGiE as the formal government of Tibet, New Delhi would have to first recognize Tibet as a state. None of these two levels of recognition have been attempted by even the staunchest of China’s rivals and thus would be an unfair expectation to have from India.
Between playing a card and not playing it all, the Indian government has a spectrum of choices, such as resorting to diplomatic grey-zone tactics by using ambiguous language on Tibet’s status; issuing stapled visas for Tibetans; and, ramping up engagement with the TGiE.
Dharamshala should show more interest in the boundary issue (for example, in providing historical records showing that the Indian stand is correct) and Delhi should take the initiative to regularly brief the TGiE about the border situation.
India’s approach towards refugees from Tibet must also incorporate local communities’ sensitivities while ensuring that domestic frictions do not deter its foreign policy interests.
It is imperative for stakeholder governments in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. to have more focused Tibet policies and outlooks, especially in the backdrop of the geopolitical complexity that will arise with the succession of the 14th Dalai Lama.
On its part, the TGiE does not have high expectations of the EU, especially if it translates to jeopardizing the EU’s relations with China.
The public recognition of the 10th Bogd Khan by the Dalai Lama only serves as a way to establish a new Tibetan-Mongolian Buddhist World and catapulting Mongolian Buddhism to a greater global role, it also strategically enlists Mongol support for the Dalai Lama against China’s Sinicization of Tibetan Buddhism.
Japan needs to counter Chinese interference in the reincarnation process of the Dalai Lama and champion the right for Tibetans to freely choose for themselves. In this regard, Japan must harness public opinion in support of Tibet and build strong partnerships with the Tibetan community.
Notwithstanding the European Union’s growing skepticism of China as a partner in light of the China-Russia “no limit” friendship, the succession issue would require broader international coordination in order to amplify support for Tibet.
Engaging with the Tibet issue more morally and democratically could help Beijing win the world’s trust and respect while simultaneously bringing Xi Jinping closer to his aspirations of being a global leader.
Under Xi Jinping, there are limited signs of positive moderation in Beijing’s stance towards Tibet, particularly concerning talks with the Dalai Lama. Beijing’s core position has only grown stronger and is unlikely to change without external mediation or attention; the recognition of a ‘Chinese’ Dalai Lama by the CPC is guaranteed, and while he will not enjoy the spiritual support of the Buddhists, he will still have the state-given mandate to execute the practice of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet as the CPC sees fit.
Despite China’s monumental arrangements in preparation for the coming succession struggle, its final goal of obtaining the support of the Tibetan population within Tibet and of world opinion, remains distant and uncertain.
The Dalai’s successor is most likely going to be found in India, from amidst the sixth generation of Tibetan Buddhist families in the country. There is an emergent need for New Delhi to have a clear policy on Tibet, and for the CTA to have a clear policy on its approach to India.
Succession, reincarnation, the ‘Tibet Question’, Tibetan identity and historical debates over the complex roles the three sides of India, China and Tibet have played: All these factors in themselves are highly contested topics, especially vis-à-vis terminology used. For instance, the usage of the words ‘refugee rehabilitation’ may itself be accepted by some and rejected by others. This volume has sought to keep these sensitivities in mind, and adhere to commonly used phrases in the scholarship of Tibet studies, while allowing the contributors to express research/views that are personal to their brand of study and analyses.
The Dalai Lama’s Succession: Strategic Realities of the Tibet Question is a joint publication of the Stockholm Center for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs (SCSA-IPA) of the Institute for Security & Development Policy (ISDP, Sweden) and the Organisation for Research on China and Asia (ORCA, India).This Special Issue was first published on ISDP’s website which can be accessed here.