The Dalai Lama is 82
P Stobdan*

NEW DELHI — The impact of the 19th Communist Party of China congress and affirmation of President Xi Jinping as China's ‘most powerful" leader in decades matters for India — especially on the ‘Tibet Issue," which also intersects with longstanding conflicts over the Chinese-Indian border.

Tibetan leader Dalai Lama's well-known desire to return home has taken on new urgency, following this November 23 statement: "The past is past, Tibetans want to stay with China," he said. These words carry a serious political overtone, coming as it does immediately after the 19th party congress and amid the current Doklam border standoff between India and China.

The Dalai Lama's statement that he is "not seeking independence for Tibet and wishing to stay with China," is not in itself new; however, his declaration that "he would return to Tibet at once, if China agrees' has sparked fresh speculation of a possible rapprochement with Beijing.

The sign of rapid thawing strangely comes on the heels of President Donald Trump's recent visit to Beijing. Most likely, Trump would not have made Tibet a pressure point in his dealings with Beijing, and would have had no qualms in dumping the Dalai Lama (whom the US fostered for over half a century) on the altar of a better trade deal or for securing China's commitment to exert more pressure on North Korea. During the trip US officials made to the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile in the northern India city of Dharamshala prior to Trump's visit, this prospect would probably have been discussed.

The inevitability of this change was clear when the US had started faltering on Tibet even earlier, when Barack Obama had to welcome the Dalai Lama through the back door of the White House, signaling Washington's inability to resist Beijing's pressure.

Trump was not even inclined to embrace the issue, as he refused to meet the Tibetan leader and instead proposed zero aid in 2018 to the Tibetans, reversing decades-old American policy. The State Department has also not appointed a special coordinator for Tibet.

Surely it couldn't have been a coincidence that a week after Trump's China visit, the Dalai Lama abruptly selected two personal emissaries to represent him in all "global engagements." He has cited increasing physical fatigue, but the decision to appoint two "trusted friends' – former ‘prime minister-in-exile‘ Samdong Rinpoche and current president of the ‘government-in-exile", Lobsang Sangay – was meant to send a calibrated signal to China.

Indeed, the Dalai Lama has been working on a new plan – 5/50 vision – that envisaged a five-year strategy for returning to dialogue with China, but preparing for a 50-year struggle if needed – along the "hope for the best and prepare for the worst" proverb. The 5/50 strategy reaffirmed his middle-way approach (Umaylam) as a realistic political means of realizing the dual aim of his prompt return to Tibet and fulfilling the aspirations of the Tibetan people.

Appointing personal emissaries satisfies China. Beijing has been emphatically asking the Dalai Lama to stop traveling to Western capitals, if talks are to be resumed. At the 19th party congress, the Tibet Work Forum chief told reporters that international figures have no excuse for meeting with the Dalai Lama.

Xi has a soft spot for Tibet.

Within this rapidly-unfolding scenario, the Dalai Lama appears to have sent Samdong on a discreet visit to Kunming (China), part of the first five-year plan to engage with China, while Lobsang Sangay's 17-day tour to Europe and Canada is meant to sustain the struggle for the next 50 years, if the first plan fails.

Tibetan Sera Monastery — Photo: Esther Lee

Could talks succeed now? In the past, Chinese leaders stymied the Dalai Lama's desire to return to Tibet. But there is a distinct possibility that it may bear fruit this time.

First, Xi, widely known to have a soft spot for Tibet, has so far kept his own approach close to his chest, fearing resistance from hardliners. Unlike others, he held the view that the prospects for solving the Tibet problem would peter out once the Dalai Lama is no more. Xi now finds himself in a perfect position to resolve the issue as no other Chinese leader could do in the past, for he also stands to gain personally both in political and moral terms, to become the most credible leader in China's history.

Second, the Dalai Lama too long hoped for Xi to change tack, as he hailed him as "realist" and "open-minded" in contrast to his predecessors. In fact, the Tibetan leader has admitted to having received positive signals from top Chinese officials, especially from the moderate elements as streams of Han Chinese flocked to meet him during Xi's first term. In May, the party was shocked to find their own party members clandestinely funding the Dalai Lama.

But, most critically, Tibetans living inside Tibet may have pressured the Dalai Lama to seize the opportunity and resolve differences during Xi's second term, before the window for a deal closes. With time running out, the Dalai Lama can be anything but hopeful. He has been steadily losing international support in the face of China's rise as a world power. Countries almost never receive the Dalai Lama officially anymore.

Apart from his age, the Tibetan leader faces the challenge of keeping his flock together. Delays in finding a solution causes anxiety, uncertainty and division among his people. Even inside Tibet, rising frustration and hopelessness have been highlighted by people resorting to self-immolation. The number stands at 149 so far.

And so, in what must be an embarrassing climb-down for the exiled Tibetan leaders, all they can do now is settle for the cause of "development," while hoping that the Chinese will not resort to repression of the Tibetan people.

As for India, the question is whether New Delhi has any role to play in this rapidly-evolving scene, and if so under what political parameters. There is no sign of anyone having even considered the impact of this. But to be cautious, any Sino-Tibetan deal would seriously risk undercutting India's position on the Doklam standoff boundary dispute with China.

Seemingly fretful about impending developments, the Dalai Lama now finds himself walking a political tightrope by espousing reconciliation between India and China, "living peacefully by putting the differences aside." It is a message that can applied far and wide.

P. Stobdan, a former Indian ambassador, specializes in Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian and Uighur affairs.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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