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"Getting to Yes" in Sino-Tibetan Dialogue

posted Mar 7, 2014, 5:23 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Mar 7, 2014, 6:26 PM ]
By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review 

The classic negotiation book “Getting to Yes”, by Harvard law professor Roger Fisher and anthropologist William Ury, describes how a successful negotiator uses the concept of BATNA: Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement.  BATNA is a tool to understand the interests and options of two negotiating parties, and can be used as a strategic point of leverage.  In the Tibetan context, BATNA is also a way to understand that the official Tibetan policy of seeking autonomy is actually helped – not harmed – by calls for independence.

A party’s BATNA is the best course of action if a negotiated agreement cannot be reached.  There are many examples of this, from international diplomacy to a shopkeeper deciding how aggressively to bargain with a customer.  For example, if a shopkeeper sees that a customer desperately wants an item and cannot get it elsewhere, then the shopkeeper will not bargain down the price.  The customer has no good BATNA, and is basically at the shopkeeper’s mercy.

This is a simplistic explanation.  There are ways to change BATNA, and to play a weak hand well.  A short editorial cannot do justice to the concept.

The Taiwan-China Talks

BATNA is driving the first direct Taiwan-China talks since 1949.  On February 11, 2014, the top officials for cross-Strait relations of both Taiwan and China began historic confidence-building talks in Nanjing.

According to the BBC, China “sees these talks as a useful opportunity to forge closer ties with Taiwan while a relatively pro-Beijing president remains in power on the island.”   The Washington Post adds, “Taiwan’s people remain firmly opposed to the idea of reunification with China, with about 80 percent supporting the status quo of de-facto independence”.

From China’s perspective, the BATNA here is simple.  China knows that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou favors eventual reunification, but faces a strong domestic pro-independence movement.  Ma is currently deeply unpopular for several reasons, and he may well lose re-election in 2016.  Therefore, if China doesn’t try to reach a solution with Ma in power, then China’s BATNA – best alternative option – is unappealing. 

China’s BATNA alternative is to deal with a more hostile, pro-independence Taiwanese president in 2016, probably from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).  Because China sees dealing with Ma as the better option, according to the BBC analysis, China is willing to hold these historic talks.

This suggests that the strength of the pro-independence DPP is actually helping propel the Taiwan-China talks, since China cannot take Taiwanese willingness to compromise for granted.  Ironically, when the KMT tried to suppress pro-independence voices before Li Teng-hui’s presidency, it may have actually been hurting its negotiating strength with Beijing.

The Meaning for Tibet

The relevance of these Taiwan-China talks to the case of Tibet is clear, and even the Tibetan government-in-exile has prominently posted the BBC article mentioned above on its website.  But China is not talking with President Ma because it is morally right to resolve disputes through dialogue rather than force.  China is talking with Ma because it prefers that to the very real prospect of dealing with a Taiwan led by a pro-independence president later.

This BATNA analysis suggests that the Tibetan government-in-exile’s official Middle Way policy of seeking autonomy is actually helped by strong pro-independence sentiment in Tibetan society.  In fact, BATNA suggests that the only reason Beijing would ever consider any type of Tibetan autonomy is that it considers the alternative – Tibetan independence – even worse. 

So, counterintuitively, any possible success of the Middle Way actually depends on independence as a viable alternative course.  Otherwise China has no BATNA reason to talk with Dharamsala.

Obviously, both His Holiness and Samdhong Rinpoche support the Middle Way (at least as it was originally defined, not necessarily the recent re-interpretation to exclude democracy, embrace the structures of communist rule, and accept unlimited Chinese militarization).  Even so, His Holiness declared in his Second Strasbourg Address in 2008, “we certainly have the right to explore all other political options available to us.”  Samdhong Rinpoche recently stated that the “real aim of both [the Middle Way and independence supporters] is the welfare of the Tibetan people.” 

Even by the Middle Way’s own terms, it is relative.  It can only exist relative to a viable alternative of independence.  Without that, there is nothing for the Middle Way to be in the “middle” of.

Given all this, it becomes clear just how counterproductive and even dangerous it is to try to impose an official orthodoxy in the Middle Way/Independence debate.  In fact, doing so plays into China’s hands by eliminating probably the only BATNA situation that might force Beijing to negotiate at all.

Therefore, is the current leadership of the Tibetan government-in-exile ready to revise its statements that criticism of the Middle Way is “immoral” and “baseless”?  Is Tibetan exile society ready to accept that a strong pro-independence loyal-opposition party (like the fledgling Tibetan National Congress) may actually help drive Beijing to real negotiations, if they happen at all?  Hopefully we are getting to yes.

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