Despite a warning by China that it would damage diplomatic relations, the US President Barack Obama meets His Holiness the Dalai Lama and expresses
support for result oriented dialogue on Tibet
It was the fourth time since President Barack Obama came to live in the White House that he hosted the Dalai Lama, the exiled ruler and spiritual leader of Tibet. This time too everything went like a perfect Buddhist ritual. Each thing happening in a pre determined sequence, with each player reciting the same mantra which the oft repeated procedure appears to have been assigned to each participant.
This time too, as the news of White House plans to host the Dalai Lama came to light, Beijing threw tantrums and threatened the US government of ‘serious’ damage to China-US relations if President Obama hosted China’s most hated ‘splitist’. Interestingly China has been repeating this threat to every single country and its Head of State over the years who met Dalai Lama. And in view of the fact that Dalai Lama has earned the distinction of being the most hosted guest of Heads of States in the 20th and 21st Centuries, this exchange of threats by China and explanations by the host has become a predictable ritual with the international media and the diplomatic world.
As it happened in earlier three meetings between Dalai Lama and Obama, this time too the White House spokesman Josh Earnest issued a statement meant for clarifying to Beijing that it was only a ‘private’ meeting. He urged Beijing leaders to note that the meeting took place only in the ‘residential’ part of White House and not in the Oval Office where only official senior guests of the President are received.
One wonders if it reflected US
government’s helplessness before an angry Beijing or just diplomatic
gymnastics to get around the dispute as the White House statement tried to tell Chinese leaders that he was actually making their job easier by encouraging the Dalai Lama to directly talk to China. “President Obama encouraged meaningful and direct dialogue between the Dalai Lama and his representatives with Chinese authorities to lower tensions and resolve differences,” it said. But as always, the statement also included a tongue in cheek expression which reminded Beijing leaders that the US expects them to improve their conduct towards the Tibetan people. “The President emphasised his strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions, and the equal protection of human rights of Tibetans in China”, added the spokesman.
On the Chinese side the reactions were more blunt than diplomatic. A day before the June 16 meeting took place, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang sharply criticised and blamed the US government for backing out on its own commitments to China on Tibet by deciding to host Dalai Lama in the White House.
But once President Obama went ahead with his fourth meeting with Dalai Lama whom he publicly calls as a “good friend”, Chinese anger was too visible to miss. China’s state run English language newspaper ‘Global Times’ branded this meeting as President Obama’s “mean side”. Taking a direct dig at Obama the
editorial said, “While Obama often says he welcomes China’s peaceful rise, his meetings with the Dalai Lama erode his sincerity and make him look like helping the latter. This continues to make trouble with China.”
It is interesting to note that with its ever increasing economic and military power China has been able to develop enormous diplomatic influence across the world. This, aided by China’s
traditional attitude of caring a fig for others’ opinion, has further helped the current Chinese communist regime to stay immune to world opinion on any matter of Chinese disliking. But it is equally baffling to note that on every mention of Tibet or Dalai Lama anywhere in the world forum, the Chinese leaders lose their cool and fail to hide their vulnerability and helplessness.
One explanation to this question is that China does not want the world to ever discuss the colonial side of its
personality. Unlike China’s other colonies like East Turkistan (‘Xinjiang’ in Chinese terminology), South Mongolia (‘Inner Mongolia’ as they call it in China) or for that matter Manchuria too, Tibet happens to be the only colony which has managed to stay like a fresh wound in world’s memory since Chinese PLA occupied Tibet in 1951. Despite all efforts of Beijing rulers, the Dalai Lama has emerged as Chinese government’s most influential foe in the free world. His ever increasing popularity has only added to china’s headache and made them look vulnerable and helpless in many international fora.
For example Dalai Lama’s popularity has attracted so much support for Tibet internationally at people’s level that World Bank had to ask China to withdraw its loan application which was aimed at using the World Bank money to develop its two western colonies namely Xinjiang and Tibet. Similarly, public opposition about the Beijing Olympic torch in 2008 across the world was so overwhelming that the Olympic Committee was forced to decide to end the practice of public torch relay across the world. In 2002 when the Canadian Prime Minister gave in to Chinese pressure and cancelled his plans to meet the visiting Dalai Lama, he was forced to meet the Tibetan leader in face of severe public opposition and criticism by the Canadian media.
However, all this does not mean that China has given up or Dalai Lama has had a walkover in his tug of war with Beijing. Of late Chinese government has been able to register many substantial victories in its attempts to snub Dalai Lama and his host governments. For example in October 2014 Beijing was able to force South African Government to deny visa to Dalai Lama who was scheduled to attend an international meet of Nobel Laureates there. In yet another diplomatic coup same year Beijing could successfully force the Spain government to call a special
session of its Parliament to rewrite parts of its constitution overnight in March 2014. It ensured that the Supreme Court of Spain would not implement its judgement on two cases related to human right excesses in Tibet by China. If implemented, this judgement would have forced the Interpol to arrest five senior Chinese leaders who included Hu Jintao, Li Peng and Jiang Jemin on their next travel to any country.
In the case of US too the Chinese pressure on Dalai Lama related issues has not been fruitless either. In 2002 it was under Beijing’s pressure that President Obama met the visiting Dalai Lama in his private quarters.
However, it will be too naive to conclude that US is giving up fully on Tibet to Chinese pressure. Our very recent memory reminds us how CIA worked hand in glove with the Tibetan guerrillas inside occupied Tibet to give a bloody nose to the Chinese. Following the Sino-US honeymoon in 1970s the US withdrew its support from the guerrillas and focused more on the diplomatic front. Its decision to confer ‘Congressional Gold Medal’, its highest civil honour (an equivalent of ‘Bharat Ratna’ in India) on the Dalai Lama left Chinese leadership red faced. Other steps like appointment of a special observer on Tibet too underline the significance of Tibet in the US game.
Though many Tibet supporters may chose to interpret low key reception of Dalai Lama in the White House as
waning US support to Tibet. But President Obama’s decision to host the Tibetan leader successively for the fourth time despite high level Chinese protests cannot be ignored in any manner. Especially the White House’s statement “…. equal protection of human rights of Tibetans in China…” clearly shows that US is not going to give up Tibet in the wake of Chinese tantrums.
There are many reasons to believe that US is not going to abandon Tibetans completely despite all Chinese shoving. Now it is for Dalai Lama and Tibet to live up to the Chinese pressures and keep the Tibetan issue alive till the right day in history arrives for occupied Tibet and its people.
(The writer is Chairman, Centre for Himalayan Asia Studies & Engagement and a veteran Tibet-China watcher)