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Impact of Obama-Dalai Lama Meet on Sino-US Ties

Notwithstanding the Chinese assertiveness in recent times on territorial matters, thereby straining its ties with its immediate neighbours, China remains paranoid on any position that an outside power takes either on Tibet or Dalai Lama. Ever since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet and took refuge in India in 1959, the Tibet issue has remained as a centrepiece on China’s diplomacy. China’s ambitions of territorial aggrandisement, be it Taiwan, Tibet, claims on the whole of South China Sea and even claims over some or at times the whole of Arunachal Pradesh are symptomatic of an expansionist power. The new Chinese President Xi Jinping has carried his “Chinese Dream” of recapturing the prestige that China lost during “100 years of national shame”. A major component of that goal is to restore the territories it lost due to military defeat. While Taiwan is the first target, China has been tightening its noose on Tibet and has seen the Dalai Lama as a separatist.

China has taken umbrage on any country that has hosted the Dalai Lama and its leaders have met him. For India, he has remained as a guest and a spiritual leader and is not allowed to indulge in political activities. In the past, China has objected whenever the Dalai Lama has visited Arunachal Pradesh, an integral part of the Indian state. Even China objected when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the state which it claims as its own territory.

So, when the Dalai Lama met President Obama on 21 February, China made the usual noise. Beijing reacted angrily but stopped short of threatening any retaliation. While China has successfully bullied smaller trading partners in the past and forced them to bend to its will by turning away the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, it is a different ball game with the U.S. This did not prevent the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying to warn the US that the meeting would “severely impair China-US relations” and “grossly interfere in the internal affairs of China”.

The US, on its part, does not take such rhetoric seriously. The Chinese foreign ministry reacted the same way during Obama’s two previous meetings with the Dalai Lama in February 2010 and July 2011 but did not follow up the rhetoric with any hostile actions. Ever since the Tibetan leader fled to India, China’s stand on charging him as a separatist has remained unchanged. China accuses any foreign leaders who receive him of undermining Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. On his part, the Dalai Lama has declared that he wants only autonomy, not independence, for Tibet.

The US supports that policy and has played down the political significance of the meeting. During his visit to Beijing in early February 2014, the US Secretary of State John Kerry is believed to have given advance warning on this meeting. In its continuous campaign to isolate and weaken the Dalai Lama diplomatically, China often issues threats to those foreign leaders who either meet or intend to meet him. Those who do not heed to Beijing’s advice, it warns, must be prepared to “pay a price”. Whether Beijing really has been able to extract a real price is a different matter. Though Beijing has not been able to extract compliance from the US on the Tibet and Dalai Lama issue, it was able to impose its will on Britain when Prime Minister David Cameron met the Dalai Lama in May 2012 at the St. Paul Cathedral in London. Beijing suspended all ministerial contacts with Britain for 18 months and snubbed Cameron by not allowing him to visit Beijing. Relations resumed only after the Cameron said he did not plan to meet the spiritual leader again in the near future. This political snub, however, did not impact the economic content in the relationship as bilateral trade hit a record high the following year. In fact, Chinese investment in Britain over the past two years reached $13 billion, more than during the past 30 years.

Similarly, Germany faced China’s wrath when Chancellor Angela Merkel met the Dalai Lama in her office in 2007. But again normalcy returned soon and German’s exports to China increased by almost 20 per cent the same year. When the Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite met the Dalai Lama in September 2013 in Vilnius, the Baltic state faced the Chinese retribution by cancellation of a planned visit in October 2013 by a Chinese deputy Minister of Trade. While not damaging its economic relations with countries which have hosted the Dalai Lama in the past, China has, however, succeeded in some way or other by extracting statements, for example, from France, Britain and Denmark, who have acknowledged Beijing’s sovereignty over Tibet and pledged to respect Chinese interests.

At other times, Beijing has successfully used its economic leverage on countries which found in vulnerable situation whenever the Dalai Lama issue was involved. For example, South Africa whose trade and investment cooperation with China are strong succumbed to Chinese pressure and refused a visa twice to the Dalai Lama. As a result, he was unable to attend Bishop Desmond birthday party and Nelson Mandela’s funeral, both fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners. So, this time when Obama met the Dalai Lama on 21 February, he met him in the White House Map Room, not in the Oval Office, thereby making it technically unofficial, in contrast to his predecessor George W. Bush who officially met the Dalai Lama in 2007 and awarded him a Congressional Medal of Honor.

So, what did they discuss without hurting the Chinese sensitivity? Obama 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. Obama also commended the Dalai Lama’s commitment to peace and non-violence and expressed support for his “Middle Way” approach. While stressing direct dialogue to resolve long-standing differences that produces positive outcome, he reiterated the US position that Tibet is part of China and that the US does not support Tibet independence. In return, the Dalai Lama clarified that he was not seeking independence for Tibet. Whenever the US President has met the Dalai Lama in the past, the Chinese have not only objected but the Foreign Office has threatened that such meeting would impair bilateral ties.

In consideration to the Chinese sensitivity, the White House delayed President Obama’s first meeting from October 2009 to February 2010 as the President’s inaugural trip to Beijing was shortly scheduled. This postponement drew criticisms from human-rights activists and others who accused the US for appeasing China. This time, Obama faced no such consideration as he does not plan to visit China until November. Washington feels that by that time things would have cooled down. Even if President Obama decides to visit Beijing before, the Chinese protest would have no such impact.

There are reports of deteriorating human rights in China’s Tibetan areas. The West has been urging the Chinese leadership to resume talks with the Dalai Lama or his followers without preconditions. It is reported that 120 people in Tibet and Tibetan areas of neighbouring Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu provinces have resorted to self immolation since 2009 in protest against Chinese rule. Instead of addressing the issue, the Chinese leadership has deployed secury forces and adopted surveillance mechanism to stop such things from happening. The Dalai Lama has said such protests are ineffectual but refused to condemn them, though says they are “understandable”.

Moreover, the White House does not invite the Dalai Lama to meet the President; the Dalai Lama decides by himself and the White House plans meeting with him if it is convenient. Washington, in any case, does not give much leeway to Chinese protestation on such matters, though Chinese sensitivities are factored in.

President Obama’s Asian itinerary is already fixed. He is scheduled to travel to four Asian countries – Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea – from 22-23 April 2014 and that would surely make China uncomfortable. All these four countries have territorial disputes with China in East China Sea or South China Sea.

While in Japan, Obama and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo are expected to reaffirm their commitment to strengthening the Japan-US alliance. This tour underscores the US policy of placing importance on the Asia-Pacific region. It will be Obama’s third visit to Japan as President and his first in three and half years. His last Japan visit was in November 2010. His visit to Malaysia and the Philippines was initially scheduled for October 2013 but was cancelled due to the partial government shutdown. The Philippines has filed for arbitration with the UN tribunal of judges in a dispute with China over clams in the South China Sea. Japan and China have been locked in an increasingly tense standoff over a clump of islands in the East China Sea.

Though the US had kept out of these issues so far, it cannot remain silent for long as two of its alliance partners are under threat of Chinese belligerence. Now the US demands that China must submit to multilateral negotiations and international norms and Obama is expected to convey this message when he is in Asia in April. The US has realised China’s assertiveness has created a sense of unease in Asia and its position to deal disputes bilaterally rather than as per international norms has caused considerable disquiet. Now the US seems convinced that China’s assertiveness in maritime issues is disruptive and is not shy to speak out openly. Though there may not be any direct connection seen with these issues with the meeting with the Dalai Lama, by showing its support to these aggrieved countries, the US administration’s changed stance cannot be missed. China need not be unnecessarily aggressive towards the Dalai Lama as such behaviour will only strengthen US perception on its maritime claims as unjust.

In the first year of his second term, Obama put off a meeting with the monk, as a move to placate China and when he finally met, it was technically unofficial. Given their mutual interests to preserve relations, China is unlikely to retaliate in a way that would undermine its larger interests, though it could contribute to a “souring mood” between the two. Bilateral ties are already showing some strains following US criticism of Chinese actions in territorial disputes with its smaller neighbours. China is ill advised not to jeopardise its larger interests by taking the Dalai Lama issue too far.

Dr. Panda is The Japan Foundation Fellow at Reitaku University, Japan. E-mail:

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