US Presidents: Meeting the Dalai Lama, and statements on Tibet

By Lobsang Wangyal

McLEOD GANJ, India, 28 November 2020

The recent statement by the Sikyong (political leader) of the Central Tibetan Administration, Lobsang Sangay, that he’s the first to visit White House in 60 years (although he didn’t actually go there), calls for analysis of the meetings between US Presidents and the Dalai Lama. Sangay posted a photo of himself and the Representative of the Dalai Lama to North America, Ngodup Tsering, labelled as visiting the White House, which was contradicted by former State Department staff Todd Stein saying it was actually the Eisenhower Building where the meeting of White House staff with Sangay took place. The building is located next to the West Wing of the White House, and houses the majority of offices for White House staff. The White House itself is the official residence and workplace of the President of the United States of America.

Sangay also stated later that the Dalai Lama had been invited to the White House as a religious leader. The 13 meetings between the US Presidents and the Dalai Lama at the White House since 1991 have been compiled here to understand the real history of interactions between the Tibetan government-in-exile and the White House.

Since the historic first meeting of US President George HW Bush with Tibetan political and religious leader the Dalai Lama at the White House in April 1991, succeeding presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Barack Obama all kept the tradition and met with the Dalai Lama on a number of occasions to show their support for the Tibetan cause, despite warnings by China that it would damage diplomatic relations.

President Bill Clinton met with the Dalai Lama on four occasions between 1993 and 2000, discussing US-China relations, allegations of human rights abuses in Tibet, and the Dalai Lama’s commitment to nonviolence and his efforts to initiate dialogue with the Chinese government.

President George W Bush similarly met the Dalai Lama four times, starting with the 23 May 2001 meeting at the White House. On one occasion, on 23 September 2008, Bush telephoned the Dalai Lama at his residence in McLeod Ganj, India, to inquire about his health, and discussed other issues.

President Barack Obama, like his predecessors, also met the Dalai Lama four times in his eight-year term. All these meetings, like before, took place in the White House residence instead of the Oval Office, where the presidents normally welcome visiting world leaders, in an apparent bid to placate China. The last of these meetings was in June 2016. By then the Dalai Lama had relinquished his political powers, transferring the responsibilities to an elected leader called Sikyong.

Incumbent Donald Trump is the only president in 30 years not to meet the Dalai Lama.

During his presidential campaign, Trump’s opponent Joe Biden promised that as president he will meet the Dalai Lama, and will press China to resume talks with Tibetans for “meaningful autonomy”. Biden had previously met with the Dalai Lama in 2003 when he was a Senator.

Biden also vowed to impose sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses in Tibet, and to step up support for Tibetans.

“As President, I’ll put values back at the center of American foreign policy. I’ll meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama; appoint a new Special Coordinator for Tibetan issues,” Biden said in a statement on 3 September 2020.

Biden called out Trump for not meeting the Tibetan leader yet, saying “It’s disgraceful, though not surprising, that Trump is the first American president in three decades who has not met or spoken with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”

The official US policy has always been that Tibet is a part of China, not an independent country, but that the US is committed to support the distinctive historical, cultural, religious, and linguistic identity of the Tibetan people, and also to support the Tibetan demand for autonomy within China. The US urges the Chinese government to have substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives for a negotiated settlement of the Tibetan issue on the basis of the Middle-Way approach as proposed by the Dalai Lama.

All these presidents except Trump spoke or issued statements on Tibet on number of occasions expressing their support for Tibet and the Tibetan people. Some of their speeches or statements are published on this website.

President Barack Obama on Tibet

Note from the President’s Office after meeting with the Dalai Lama,
WASHINGTON, DC, 21 February 2014

The President met this morning at the White House with His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. The President reiterated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China. The President commended the Dalai Lama’s commitment to peace and nonviolence and expressed support for the Dalai Lama’s “Middle Way” approach. The President stressed that he encourages direct dialogue to resolve long-standing differences and that a dialogue that produces results would be positive for China and Tibetans. In this context, the President reiterated the US position that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China and that the United States does not support Tibet independence. The Dalai Lama stated that he is not seeking independence for Tibet and hopes that dialogue between his representatives and the Chinese government will resume. The President and the Dalai Lama agreed on the importance of a positive and constructive relationship between the United States and China.

President George W Bush on Tibet

President Bush urges China to hold dialogue with Dalai Lama
WASHINGTON, DC, 13 June 2008

And the other issue is China and its relations with Tibet, we both agree, it would stand the Chinese government in good stead if they would, you know, begin a dialogue with the representatives for the Dalai Lama. They’ll find if they ever were to reach out to the Dalai Lama they’d find him to be a really fine man, a peaceful man, a man who is anti-violence, a man who is not for independence but for the cultural identity of the Tibetans being maintained. And so I want to thank you sir, you got good knowledge and you’ve had a lot of experience, and you’re kind to share it with me.

President Bill Clinton on Tibet

President Clinton and President Jiang Zemin press conference.
BEIJING, China, 27 June 1998

On 27 June 1998, in a joint press conference in Beijing, which was telecast live by the China Central Television (CCTV), the US President Bill Clinton urged the Chinese government to open a dialogue on Tibet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. President Clinton said: “I urge President Jiang [Zemin] to assume a dialogue with the Dalai Lama in return for the recognition that Tibet is a part of China and recognition of the unique cultural and religious heritage of that region.” Clinton also said, “I have spent time with the Dalai Lama, I believe him to be an honest man, and I believe if he had a conversation with President Jiang, they would like each other very much.” In response, President Jiang Zemin augmented the positive aspects of China’s rule in Tibet. He also said, “As long as the Dalai Lama makes a public commitment that Tibet is an inalienable part of China and Taiwan is a province of China, then the door to dialogue and negotiation is open… Actually, we are having several channels of communications with the Dalai Lama, so I hope the Dalai Lama will make a positive response in this regard.”

President George HW Bush on Tibet

President George HW Bush on Tibet
WASHINGTON DC, 16 April 1991

Briefing the media on 17 April 1991, the White House Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said, “The President met with him for about a half an hour last evening. They discussed the general situation in Tibet.” He continued, “We have, however, repeatedly raised our concerns over human rights abuses in that country — I mean in Tibet — with the Chinese government, and we continue to urge the followers of the Dalai Lama and the Beijing government to resume a peaceful dialogue to resolve the problems between them.”

Note: Updated in introduction with first two paragraphs, at 8:45 pm on 28 November 2020.
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