On February 18, 2010, US President Barack Obama finally met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibetan spiritual leader, in the Map Room of the White House.
The meeting of Obama with the Dalai Lama will mean the Tibetan issue will continue to receive the close attention of the world. This meeting sends a message from the international community to the Chinese government: the Tibetan issue is not something to be manipulated by the Chinese government free from the scrutiny of the rest of the world. This meeting also maintains the political pressure against the world’s largest autocratic polity.
The White House delayed this meeting several times so as not to provoke the diplomatic ire of the Chinese communist authority too much. But obviously the Americans did not achieve this goal according to the reaction of the Chinese government.
The Tibetan issue and the sale of arms to Taiwan are what the Chinese government refers to as “domestic affairs”, in which it spares no effort to prevent the international community from meddling. However, the international community does not regard these issues as merely “domestic” as claimed by China; these issues are highly controversial in the court of world opinion.
A Chinese government spokesperson suggested that the meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama would severely harm the feelings of the Chinese people. In fact, the majority of the Chinese populace is not aware of, concerned with, nor cares about this meeting. Nevertheless, the February 18 meeting did damage “the face” of the Hu Jintao government. In a way, Chinese culture is a “culture of reputation” which is fastidious about “sensibility, grace and impressiveness”.
The purpose of the Chinese government in admonishing the White House repeatedly before the meeting, saying “this will harm the feelings of Chinese people and will undermine the interests of China”, and so on, was to abort the meeting before it took place. From President Obama’s point of view, however, he cannot change the tradition for US Presidents to meet the Dalai Lama, one which has lasted for 20 years.
Despite several postponements, President Obama eventually met the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government’s efforts were wasted. It is possible that the Chinese government will bear a grudge and retaliate. It is foreseeable that the next round of US-Chinese talks will deteriorate and will possibly see new frictions and conflicts on diplomatic, economic, trade, military, security and non-proliferation issues.
Does this Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama have any profound importance? I don’t think so. First of all, this meeting is merely a customary continuation rather than a historic breakthrough. Second, the US will not change its policy towards China on Tibetan issue because of this meeting. The US will continue its recognition of the sovereignty and integrity of China, and will not promote the independence of Tibet. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama always advocates for a meaningful autonomy of Tibet rather than seeking independence.
There is no point in the Chinese government acting irrationally against this customary contact.
The Chinese government blames the Dalai Lama as a separatist, deliberately misinterpreting the Dalai Lama’s advocacy for autonomy as if he was seeking independence. This is obviously a distortion of the facts and will hardly win international approval, although the government can indoctrinate the Chinese populace domestically through partisan propaganda. After all, this will not withstand the history, and the truth will speak louder than the propaganda sooner or later.
Will this meeting harm the interests of China? The reality is that this is all about China’s vanity. In mid June 2007, the Dalai Lama visited Australia. The Chinese authority warned the Australian leaders not to meet the Dalai Lama again and again. But this backfired and not only Kevin Rudd, the then Opposition Leader, but also Prime Minister John Howard met His Holiness. Was there any impairment to relations after the meeting? Not at all. The Australian-Chinese bilateral relationship continued to develop, and trade proceeded without any hindrance.
To be honest, John Howard, then Australian PM, was possibly, initially, not so keen to meet His Holiness. But he met the Dalai Lama to demonstrate that his government did not accept being told what to do: it was important to defend Australia’s sovereignty and reputation. Isn’t the Hu Jintao government being self-defeating? Isn’t the Chinese government repeating the same diplomatic stupidity this time?
It is for more than half a century that the Dalai Lama has been meeting US Presidents as well as other world leaders. The meeting on February 18 is not the first nor is it the last. It is also for more than 30 years that the US has sold defensive weapons to Taiwan in order to maintain the military balance in the Taiwan Strait according to the Taiwan Relations Act. The Chinese government persists in claiming its sovereignty and strictly prohibits foreign nations from intervening in its internal affairs. The US upholds democracy and liberty, passing bills paying close attention to Tibetan and Taiwan issues. Therefore to meet with Tibetan spiritual leader is also part of the domestic affair of the US, with which US tolerates no foreign powers to meddle.
As a frontrunner of the world democracies, the US should adopt value-oriented rather than interest-driven policies on the Tibetan issue, the politico-military confrontation between the two polities across the Taiwan Strait, the movement for political transition in mainland China and other world affairs. Only in this way can the US demonstrate its leadership. Only in this way can the US be free from being caught in its own trap.
In the spirit of building a harmonious society the Hu Jintao government should deal with Tibetan issue without being overweening for fear of the reality. Tibet is problematic. Beijing needs courage and wisdom rather than outrage and mightiness. Beijing should evaluate the situation and seize the opportunity to have the Tibetan issue finalised once and for all while the Tibetan spiritual leader, who is greatly esteemed in the world, is still alive. This will set an example for the resolution of the issues of other ethnic minority regions in China as well as Taiwan.