Tibetan test for Obama’s engagement with China

Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer Photographer unknown

By Geoff Dyer

ON THE WEB, 10 November 2009

You have to hand it to the Dalai Lama for his sense of timing. Only a few weeks ago, he was quietly shunned by the White House — the first time in nearly two decades that he did not stop by while visiting Washington. Yet this week the Dalai Lama is back in the headlines with his visit to Arunachal Pradesh in north-eastern India, prompting outraged protests from China which claims part of the region as its own and calls it “southern Tibet”. The visit has been planned for months but coming as President Barack Obama is packing his bags for his first trip to Beijing, it helps keep a bit of a squeeze on the White House.

In truth, Tibet is building up to be an early test of the Obama administration’s ideas on engagement. The President declined to meet the Dalai Lama in part because he did not want a bust-up with Beijing on the eve of his trip. But it was also part of a conciliatory strategy with China which the White House hopes might be rewarded with resumption of talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama’s representatives.

My hunch is that this approach will not get very far. Indeed, Beijing already appears to have hardened its stance, saying that one pre-condition for talks is that the Dalai Lama does not discuss politics when he is overseas. (“I once told his personal representative that it was inhumane for you to let such an aged person to go on errand at very high frequency,” Zhu Weiqun, the Chinese official who represents the government in talks on Tibet, said in an interview last month.) The financial crisis in the west has increased China’s power and confidence and it seems to be using this moment of rising influence to push its case on Tibet more forcefully.

That leaves President Obama facing a desperately delicate rhetorical task in China. The whole thrust of the trip is to try and establish a good working relationship with Beijing, not to lecture. But if he stays quiet on Tibet — and then does not meet the Dalai Lama soon after, as the Tibetans say they were promised — China is likely to redouble its efforts to isolate the Dalai Lama. If smaller countries think the White House is wavering, they are not going to stand in Beijing’s way.

About the author

Geoff Dyer is the FT's China bureau chief.

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