MCLEOD GANJ, India, 15 February 2010
The world’s focus this week will be on the Obama-Dalai Lama meeting, as China fumes over a series of harsh and humiliating moves by the US president.
China responded promptly to the announcement of the meeting with its usual rhetoric, saying it is “resolutely” opposed to any such contact with the Dalai Lama and that the meeting will “seriously undermine the political foundation of Sino-US relations.” This meeting would say that the Dalai Lama is not a demon after all.
Zhu Weiqun, the executive deputy head of the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, in charge of the ongoing talks with envoys of the exiled Tibetan leader, said that it was wrong to think that the Dalai Lama was just a religious figure, and called him the “head of a separatist group.”
Beijing demonises the Dalai Lama and accuses him of fighting for an independent Tibet, while the Dalai Lama, for decades, has said that he is seeking some form of autonomy that would give Tibetans the freedom to practice their culture, language and religion within the Chinese constitution.
China will now be watching the outcome of the meeting to see if there will be a scope for the Chinese President Hu Jintao to visit Washington in April.
Relations between the two countries have been strained in recent times. The Obama adminstration imposed tariffs on Chinese tyres entering the US, vowed to get tough with China on a currency dispute, and urged Beijing to relax its controls on freedom of information after Google threatened to pull out of China as hacking attempts on the internet search giant came to light. In recent weeks the administration announced a $6.4-billion arms sale to Taiwan, further stoking China’s anger.
Differences over these issues, including the Dalai Lama meeting, have raised worries that China might retaliate by obstructing US efforts in other areas, such as imposing tougher sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme. China has already threatened to punish US companies involved in the arms sales to Taiwan, and has suspended military exchanges with Washington.
Tibet and Taiwan are China’s most sensitive issues. China maintains that Tibet has been a part of its territory for centuries, but Tibetans say the region was independent for much of its history. Beijing claims Taiwan, the self-governing democratic island, as its own, saying that it should be integrated to the mainland, by force if necessary.
Following his recent tough stances against China, the action of meeting the Dalai Lama may seem as if Obama is risking the escalation of Chinese anger. Simple logic is that Obama is retaliating against China for his fruitless China visit in November and a dealless Copenhagen Climate Conference in December.
The Dalai Lama was in the US in November, but Obama skipped meeting the Tibetan leader then for fear of offending China before he travelled there. It was bad timing. Obama could not meet the person China considers their number one troublemaker before he visited that country. But it set a bad precedent. Then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd refused to meet with the Dalai Lama in December. Ditto New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, in the same month.
Although Obama won the last Nobel Peace Prize, polls taken a year after he took the oath of office on 20 January 2009 purportedly show that his popularity is plummetting at home, where he lost the Massachusetts senate seat to the Republicans, and the Copenhagen Climate Conference was concluded without the deal the US envisoned.
Meeting with the Dalai Lama could help Obama regain his rightful position of authority and standing both at home and abroad, as the Dalai Lama enjoys widespread support in the US, including that of America’s most important entity — Hollywood. The international community would see him as keeping his promises of change that he vehemently made during his presidential campaigns, and not succumbing to outside pressure: Chinese in this case.
In order for people to see Obama in the moral and respectable position, he needs to keep his promises of change. He can make one change in thinking of how he would receive the Dalai Lama.
Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said the meeting will be held in the White House Map Room, and not the Oval Office. No president has hosted the Dalai Lama in the Oval Office. Obama you can change: Meet the Dalai Lama in the Oval Office.
Bill Burton, White House Deputy Press Secretary, has said that Obama told China’s leaders during his trip in November that he would meet with the Dalai Lama. Burton said that the Dalai Lama is an internationally respected religious and cultural leader, and the President will meet him in that capacity. He also said that the US government has human rights concerns about the treatment of Tibetans, and urged the government of China to protect the unique cultural and religious traditions of Tibet.
The Dalai Lama, 1989 Nobel Peace laureate, is the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet. He says that he is a free spokesman for the rights and freedoms of the Tibetans in Chinese-occupied Tibet.
Therefore, Obama should address the Dalai Lama not only as “an internationally respected and cultural leader”, or a “fellow Nobel Peace laureate”, but also as what he stands for: the leader of the free Tibet movement, an environmental activist, and a messenger of peace.
Every US president of the past two decades has met the Dalai Lama, beginning with George Bush in 1991.
Bill Clinton, who gave China the most favoured nation status, made a drop-by visit to meet the Dalai Lama as Vice President Al Gore was officially meeting with him in 1997. The drop-by visit is a diplomatic gambit used by the White House that allows the president to show support for a controversial visitor while saving some face for the foreign government that objects to the visit.
George W Bush extended a carefully measured welcome to the Dalai Lama in 2001 and 2003, despite protests from Beijing. Bush presented the US Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama on 17 October 2007 in the Capitol. That, many believed, benefited Bush in seeming to get an endorsement from the world’s peace icon for his senseless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
All these meetings were considered to be signs of the American commitment to human rights. America is the nation said to be championing liberty, democracy and freedom. America should stand on those principles.
Denmark, during the December Climate Conference, irrelevantly declared that Tibet is a part of China, to influence China in its favour to cut a deal. But people just shook their heads at the cheap politics. Obama was pressured to declare the same during his China visit, which he did.
If Obama is meeting the Dalai Lama for the sake of asserting his authority and getting political mileage without addressing the real issues, he will be only betraying American principles, as well as his own.
About the author
Lobsang Wangyal is a freelance photojournalist based in Mcleod Ganj, India. He also produces different events, and edits the Tibet Sun website.