The electoral victory of the incumbent Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is not just a triumphant moment for her supporters but also for those nations rooting for democracy, liberty and social justice that she stands for. Tsai Ing-wen, in addition to being the first female president of Taiwan, is also remembered as the first leader in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage. For her supporters, Tsai Ing-wen carries a strong message of political freedom and democratic rights.
However, the pertinent question to evaluate is how one draws a parallel between Taiwan under Tsai Ing-wen and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) vis–a-vis their respective positions on Tibet. Despite the disparities and divergence between Taipei and Beijing on a number of issues, their official position on Tibet has always been approving of each other. The fact remains that the PRC as well as the Republic of China (ROC) consider Tibet as part of their territory; this has been the central node of friction in Tibet-Taiwan relations. The existence and continuation of the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission (MTAC) façade evidently shows that the traditional mindset of the government of Taiwan has decided the fate of the political status of Tibet, and more importantly, showed the unyielding position continued even under President Tsai Ing-wen. The Constitution of the Republic of China (ROC) has evidently demonstrated this position on Tibet and which continues to remain a stumbling block in the future enhancement of Tibet-Taiwan relations.
While the rejoicing over the reelection of President Tsai Ing-wen is in all sense fair and well deserved, looking at the events under Tsai Ing-wen’s previous term, the enraptures of optimism and enthusiasm among the Tibetans did not crystallize into concrete actions on the ground and the Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission (MTAC) garnered particular traction during this period.
The MTAC was originally created under the Qing rule to oversee the relationship between the Qing court and the Tibetans and Mongols which it regarded as dependencies. It was maintained as an agency under the erstwhile Nationalist government during the period when both Tibet and Mongolia declared their independence and functioned as a de facto independent state. The MTAC was reinstated in Taiwan despite having no authority or legitimacy over Tibetans and Mongolians. In fact, MTAC was involved in luring few Tibetans who saw some benefit in doing business and even maintained a clandestine relationship with Tibetan resistance group that caused serious problems in Tibetan exile community. Indeed, the office remains one of the most central nodes of contention and resentment between the Tibetans and the Taiwanese Government for the past 90 years. While the office was dissolved in 2017 which was heartwarming news for Tibetans and the Tibetan struggle in particular after the Executive Yuan officially announced the closure of MTAC, the office was reportedly changed into the Mongolian and Tibetan Cultural Center and was never truly terminated. According to the official website of the Mongolian and Tibetan Cultural Center, “in accordance to structural reorganization spearheaded by the Executive Yuan in 2017, the Ministry of Culture established the Mongolian and Tibetan Cultural Center to carry on the duties of the now-defunct Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission”.
The office of Tibet in Taiwan believes that Tibetans in exile and Taiwanese should promote cultural exchanges to further improve understanding between the two. The Taipei Times reported the Official Representative of the Office of Tibet in Taiwan, Dawa Tsering stating that the Mongolian and Tibetan Cultural Center in Taipei should work with the Tibetan government in exile, which lacks the resources to conduct cultural exchanges in Taiwan.
It is nevertheless important to question such collaboration, notwithstanding, 60 years of consistent protest and abomination against MTAC by the Tibetans in exile. It is important to note that the significance of continuing and retaining the office with different designations exhibit Taiwan’s official position on the political status of Tibet as an inseparable part of Republic of China.
Meanwhile, during Tsai Ing-wen’s victory in her first election, the Tibetan media and Tibetans around the world reportedly shared the good news in various media platforms, posting pictures of her meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s meeting dating back to 2009. Subsequently, with the ascension of Tsai Ing-wen into power, many observers and supporters were quick to assume that Tibet-Taiwan relations would accelerate and undergo positive changes. The joyous mood among Tibetans who saw in her a strong sense of support for Tibet’s cause hoped for a potential visit by the H.H. the Dalai Lama, who not only has a large number of followers in Taiwan but remains a beacon of hope for the Tibetan struggle as well as the larger global community. However, such an official meeting between Tsai Ing-wen and H.H the Dalai Lama did not materialize for the fear that it might antagonise Beijing. Regardless of Tsai’s rejection of unification talk offered by Xi, China remains Taiwan’s largest trading partner, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the island’s total trade. Moreover SCMP reported that Tsai had long adhered to the principle of refraining from provoking Beijing in order to maintain stability in the region. In fact, Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office has not only called the Dalai Lama a separatist, he oppose any form of collision. Clearly, the priority has pointed towards China’s advantage.
In conclusion, Tibet’s political issue is a concerning issue to Taiwanese, who often refers to and regards the Tibetan issue in parallel as an example of a possible future for Taiwan if China integrates Taiwan with mainland China. The concurrent situation in Tibet offers a glimpse of future for Taiwan if Taiwan were to integrate with People’s Republic of China. Such integration also brings to light the growing unpopularity of what China does in Tibet. This has made Taiwanese increasingly aware of the unsympathetic and tyrannical communist rule. However, Tsai Ing-wen has never mentioned or made any references to Tibet issue in her campaign or during her presidency, even though her “Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow” became her call to arms during her campaign. Noting how Taiwan ambivalently treat Tibet issue legally, it is high time to realise that the Office of Tibet and its representatives need to push for a clear foundation on which Tibet and Taiwan can strengthen their relation by convergence of mutual interest and working towards making Taiwan realise the meaningless claim over Tibet.
*Tenzin Lhadon is a visiting fellow of Tibet Policy Institute. She is a Ph.D scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflects those of the Tibet Policy Institute.