KO PHA NGAN, Thailand, 22 February 2014
US President Barack Obama met with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama for a third time in five years on Friday, 21 February. This meeting clearly speaks for itself that the Tibetan leader is not a “violent” man.
The hour-long meeting was held in the Map Room of the White House, lesser in significance than the more prestigious Oval Office, where Obama normally meets visiting leaders. Never mind the choice of venue, the meeting in itself brought the right things out — that Obama respects the Dalai Lama and that the Tibetan issue is a concern for the US.
The meeting gave the US and the Dalai Lama an opportunity once again to make their positions and policies clear. The US maintained that it does not support Tibetan independence, but supports the Tibetans’ call for autonomy within China. The Dalai Lama has similarly stated the view over and over again for years that he is not seeking an independent Tibet, but rather following a “Middle-Way Approach” for Tibetan autonomy.
During the meeting, Obama reaffirmed his support for Tibet’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions, and for human rights for Tibetans, the White House said in a statement.
China’s peevish response
China was quick to respond to the announcement of the meeting, warning that there would be serious consequences on relations between the two countries if the meeting went ahead.
“The United States’ arrangement for its leader to meet the Dalai [Lama] would be a gross interference in China’s internal affairs and is a serious violation of the norms of international relations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement ahead of the meeting.
“The Dalai [Lama] is definitely not a pure religious figure. He is using the cloak of religion to engage in long-term activities to separate China. He is a political exile.”
Another Chinese comment said that the seemingly reasonable and mild “Middle-Way Approach” is just a camouflaged attempt at Tibetan independence, and that the Dalai Lama’s call for “true autonomy” is tantamount to an eradication of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.
The Dalai Lama requests “true autonomy” over the proposed “Greater Tibet,” a region extending to Tibetan-inhabited areas in the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan. China’s view is that this is an obvious attempt to overthrow the system governing China’s ethnic minority regions.
It is clear that the Chinese rhetoric is not paving any way towards dialogue and compromise. They are only maintaining a status quo in this changing 21st-century world, serving good for nobody.
The “Tibetan issue” that the Dalai Lama addresses is about the problems on the entire Tibetan plateau, inhabited mostly by ethnic Tibetans. Most of the self-immolation protests have been taking place in the areas of the “Greater Tibet” where people have demanded that China allow the return of the Dalai Lama. It would make no sense not to address Tibet in that context.
This Obama-Dalai Lama meeting has taken place at a time when Sino-US relations are already at a low ebb after China began to make territorial claims in the East China and South China seas.
The US has defied an air defence zone declared in the East China Sea near the disputed islets known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China by flying two warplanes over the areas, ignoring an edict from China in November that it be informed in advance of any flights in the region.
China has always criticised any leader meeting the Dalai Lama and warned of serious consequences. Obama’s previous meetings with the Dalai Lama received similar warnings from China, but ended without any serious repercussions.
It could be noted that relations between the United States and China have never been congenial in the first place, and probably will never be.
Obama did his best
The meeting raised the visibility of the Tibetan issue at the international level. The positions and policies became clear. And Obama proposed to urge the Chinese government to resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives without pre-conditions for a solution to the Tibetan issue.
That’s what Obama can do at the best. We cannot expect more of him. He is running a country, not a private business. I am sure many thinking Tibetans have felt the significance of Obama’s respect for the Dalai Lama, and the US acknowledgement and support of the Tibetan people’s non-violent cause, and feel gratitude in their hearts.
Obama has thrown the ball into the Chinese court. We now need the other world leaders to stand behind Obama. In fact, it will be an opportunity for the countries that have a stake with China to assert their rightful place in the global platform by showing their support for the Tibetan cause.
China says that the Tibetan issue is an internal matter of China and Tibet. It surely is. China must now come forward, as the Tibetans are, as always, willing to talk and move ahead to solve this internal problem.
Not addressing the issue would only exemplify China’s indifference, and lack of wisdom and political will. And in the meantime, China loses face on every international stage, while Tibetans in Tibet become ever more ready to do whatever it takes to see the rays of the light shining on them. In the end, who loses: both China and Tibet.