U.S.-China: Dalai Lama Drama

U.S.-China: Dalai Lama Drama

Tensions over the first visit of the Dalai Lama to the Obama White House indicate China’s mounting domestic concerns even as it exercises growing global clout, says Tibet expert Robert Barnett.

February 17, 2010 10:16 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

President Barack Obama’s scheduled meeting with the Dalai Lama this week drew harsh criticism from China, as did news of a $6 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. The meeting occurs at a time when China is both more confident on the global stage and more concerned about a restive Tibet and other domestic issues, says Tibet expert Robert Barnett of Columbia University. "Both sides will want to avoid any serious rupture," says Barnett, but a better understanding of each other’s positions would help.

All American presidents since 1990 have met with the Dalai Lama, yet President Obama’s scheduled meeting Thursday has drawn a sharp warning from China that the visit will undermine U.S.-China relations. Is China more irritated about this visit than it has been previously?

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There is certainly a higher level of angry rhetoric from Beijing. There was even a possible threat (People’sDaily) on February 3, when Zhu Weiqun, a party official at vice-ministerial level, said that a U.S. meeting with the Dalai Lama "would be both irrational and harmful, [and] if a country decides to do so, we will take necessary measures to help them realize this."

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But in fact, behind the scenes, Beijing was far more disturbed by the previous presidential meeting, President George W. Bush’s presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama in October 2007--because that was the first and only time a U.S. president and the Tibetan leader had met in public.

So for Chinese diplomats, the real objective for the last six months or so has been not to stop the meeting, which their experts knew was impossible, but to get it to be private. That’s been achieved, because the meeting will take place in a private room, the White House Map Room. But that’s an obscure issue of protocol that, as the White House knows, makes a lot of difference to Beijing officials but none to American or Tibetan perceptions of the meeting. For China, the symbolic details matter, but for Tibetans in Tibet, it’s only whether the two people meet that is meaningful.

But there are other factors behind the angry rhetoric. China changed its Tibet policy because of its shock at the public meeting with President Bush in 2007. It upgraded Tibet to a "core interest" and began much more aggressive efforts to stop foreign meetings with the Dalai Lama.

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Its "fire-breathing" strategy has been a major success: Since that campaign began, the leaders of Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and the pope have refused to meet the Dalai Lama; Britain publicly renounced its recognition of Tibet as autonomous in the past; and France found itself forced to declare in writing its "opposition to support for Tibet’s independence in any form whatsoever." Last year, only two national leaders met the Dalai Lama--the prime ministers of the Czech Republic and of Denmark (the Danes later found themselves compelled [to release] a public statement "opposing Tibetan independence")--compared to twenty-one in the previous four years.

What domestic issues in China are affecting its relationship with the U.S. and the West?

[China’s]"fire-breathing" strategy has been a major success: The leaders of Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and the pope have refused to meet the Dalai Lama since it began, and Britain, France, and Denmark have signed humiliating declarations on the Tibet issue.

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The rise in confidence and importance in China are genuine, substantial changes, reflecting its growth in economic and political significance, and magnified by its success in having avoided the Western-made blunders of the Iraq War and the financial crisis. But quite major changes seem to have taken place beneath the surface within China, partly byproducts of domestic over-assertion in the run-up to the Olympics. At the same time as national confidence soared in the eastern and urban areas of China, the western areas, where Tibetans and Uighurs live--about one half of China’s landmass--seemed to drift further away, with major protests in the last two years, some of them more widespread and violent than in decades.

In the rural areas of China proper, the state faces thousands of demonstrations each year from farmers whose land has been appropriated by developers or poisoned by industrial pollution. It’s becoming harder for the state to create sufficient work opportunities and maintain growth without crippling the environment. Water supply is expected to become critical, and huge symbolic and actual capital is spent on policing the Internet and suppressing dissent. China can continue to manage these strains, constantly offsetting economic expansion with political conservatism, but it has a relatively weak consensus leadership that cannot afford to take risks, so its room for maneuver in its U.S. relations is limited.

Obama cancelled a meeting with the Dalai Lama in October. Did he do that to placate China? Did he put it back on the agenda to show a tougher face?

In fact, the president didn’t cancel a meeting with the Dalai Lama; he postponed it. This was a new and interesting strategy, where a meeting is delayed to placate China temporarily while telling them clearly, as Obama did while in Beijing last year, that the meeting would still take place. This approach before seemed initially promising, responsive to Chinese sensitivities without conceding on American commitments.

Unfortunately for the president, the message misfired domestically because of the perception that the White House had secretly pressured the Dalai Lama to withdraw his request for a meeting. But the meeting was always going to take place. And many people, including the Chinese, were expecting this administration to be somewhat tougher with Beijing in its second or third year. The administration may have calculated that an initial year of conciliation would earn it enough credit to push through difficult but long-planned agenda items, such as arms sales and anti-dumping measures, which is what we’re seeing now.

What’s unexpected is that suddenly international attitudes to Beijing have changed because of the Google shift, plus negative reports such as those about China’s role at Copenhagen. Still, trade issues and Taiwan commitments would probably have pushed Washington toward a more resilient policy posture anyway.

China condemned the recent announcement of $6 billion in arms sales to Taiwan, threatening commercial sanctions on the U.S. firms involved. Yet the U.S. has continued to sell arms to Taiwan since diplomatic ties with China were established in 1972. Why the intense response?

As national confidence soared in the eastern and urban areas of China, the western areas, where Tibetans and Uighurs live--about one half of China’s landmass--seemed to drift further away, with major protests in the last two years.

The American side argues that Beijing is being unreasonable, because Washington sees these weapons as purely defensive, since it did not include so far the F16s that Taiwan asked for. And a well-defended Taiwan, the U.S. maintains, will feel more secure and so will be more willing to make concessions in its ongoing dialogue with China.

Beijing sees the weapons, which include helicopters, as multipurpose and so usable in attacks. Anyway, it has to react to arms sales to Taiwan, especially at a time when the two sides are seeing major improvements in diplomacy. China’s new profile as a major regional or even global power requires it to assert its claims to dominance within its sphere of influence.  Both sides understand that and don’t see this as necessarily contentious or difficult in itself--they know that the response to the arms sales is intended as a warning that any agreement to sell F16s would be seen by Beijing as extremely serious. But we are likely to see increasing tensions over shipping lanes and resource exploitation if, as seems inevitable, China pushes its claims for sovereignty rights over much of the South China Sea.

In addition to its rhetoric on Tibet and Taiwan, China has been antagonistic in other ways too. Beijing sent a junior official to negotiate with Obama in Copenhagen, sentenced a mentally ill British drug dealer to death over British objections, and opposes the Security Council on stronger sanctions for Iran. Why?

Both sides appear antagonistic to the other, but not to themselves. Almost all these issues seem reasonable in context to Chinese officials, and Western anger at them appears provocative or opportunistic. For example, China now says that its own computers are being attacked by high-class hackers, that supporting the Taiwanese and the Tibetans is only explicable as a plot to damage China, and that American trade demands are self-serving given its record on [the global round of talks launched at] Doha and other initiatives. It’s going to take very good communicators to unravel these radical differences between the two nations.

There are exceptions to this, which probably seem excessive to many Chinese as well, most notably the increasingly frequent instances of legal abuse, such as the cases of the missing lawyer Gao Zhisheng; the literary critic and activist Liu Xiaobo, [who was] given an eleven-year sentence last year for writing a democracy petition; or the Tibetan environmentalist and blogger Kunchok Tsephel, given fifteen years apparently for writing about protests on his blog. The rationale for these persecutions is hopelessly out of date even for China, as well as counterproductive.

But there is also an underlying structural problem: As China becomes larger and wealthier, its energy and political needs force it to look beyond its own shores and its inland borders, where it will clash increasingly with America’s continuing role as a global policeman, as well as with powerful and important neighbors like Japan, Korea, and India. It’s going to be important for all sides to develop efficient, restrained, clear-thinking channels for dialogue and diplomacy as we move into a new phase in international relations.

Should the Obama administration stake a stronger stand with China on human rights and trade issues?

International perceptions of China have just shifted. It’s as if there’s been a sudden decision around the world that some of China’s more combative postures might be bluff. So the West’s financial dependency on Beijing is now seen as less acute than some had assumed two months ago, a realization that in the future will presumably be known as a "Google moment." The Obama administration now finds it has more space to operate in, and it will be unlikely to repeat the missteps in protocol and presentation that marked last year’s dealings with Beijing and Tibet. The meeting with the Dalai Lama, high profile but largely symbolic, gives Washington a low-cost opportunity to signal a more confident but still measured approach.

Whether this will last, let alone be effective, depends on China’s response to the current swath of problems in Sino-U.S. relations. Both sides will want to avoid any serious rupture in relations, which is of paramount important to their needs to work together on climate change, the financial crisis, and other issues. If China really decides to punish the United States over trade, debt, Iran, North Korea, Taiwan, extending its maritime zone, or any other issue, America would again face major dilemmas since it’s much more susceptible to private lobby and interest pressures than Beijing.

Overall, as we are told by fortune cookies, individual character and resolve will be important: America cannot afford to remain silent about abuses of civil rights in China. But Beijing has already sent an important signal by saying last week that it will allow a U.S. aircraft carrier to visit Hong Kong in the "near future." So it is likely that behind the scenes both sides are looking to find ways to live with their differences.


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