The Delicate Dance of Meeting with the Dalai Lama

By Nitya

Feb 18, 2010 2:36pm

President Obama engaged in a delicate diplomatic dance Thursday, meeting at the White House with His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama while making a great effort to signal to the Chinese government that the U.S. is not embracing Tibetan nationalism and is showing China its proper deference and respect even while meeting with its beloved nemesis.

“The President stated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement following the meeting, “and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China.” That Gibbs emphasized the president supports human rights for Tibetans in China was a way of emphasizing his opposition to the Tibetan separatist movement. Chinese government officials argue that the monk, awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, supports independence for Tibet from China, which invaded and conquered the once-sovereign nation in 1950-1951. Chinese leaders consider it an affront to Beijing’s rule of Tibet for international leaders to meet with the Dalai Lama, who fled his homeland in 1959 and has lived in exile ever since.
The president and the Dalai Lama met in the White House Map Room – not the Oval Office, out of deference to the Chinese. "No president has ever met with the Dalai Lama in the Oval Office,” Gibbs pointed out earlier this month when the meeting was announced. Meetings with the Dalai Lama are always of some diplomatic sensitivity, though this president’s meeting with the Dalai Lama occurs at a time when he needs Chinese cooperation on a number of international issues. The US has struggled to secure Chinese cooperation in imposing new sanctions against Iran, and in fact has been preparing for months for other ways to impose sanctions  in case of a Chinese veto in the UN Security Council against them. Chinese opposition to a global climate change accord is one of the main reasons for the failure of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to achieve a global agreement, as had been planned. The US angered China when it announced $6.4 billion in arms sale to Taiwan, and US sanctions against Chinese tires were met with what could be called an act of trade war against US poultry. Incidents involving Chinese government hacking into Google and US questions about Chinese currency have also made relations tense. And of course there’s the more than $750 billion that the US owes China, through its purchase of Treasury bills. There have been some successes, as a senior administration official points out. "Chinese cooperation on the G-20 was fundamental towards international coordination on behalf of global economic recovery," the official says. "Chinese cooperation was necessary for the UN Security Council resolution imposing the stiffest sanctions ever against North Korea." The official also argued that Copenhagen was a success. "China was part of an agreement that for the first time had all major economies setting emissions standards and agreeing to meet them. China went farther than it ever had before." That the treaty wasn’t binding was "long expected," the official said, "but it was a step forward — albeit not the final step." All of this coming on the heels of a November Summit in China that was not the president’s most successful overseas sojourn. Dalai Lama: “I Always Admire America” Born Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhists and is said to be the modern reincarnation of a long line of spiritual leaders. After their meeting, the Dalai Lama, clad in his maroon and yellow robe, walked to microphones and cameras outside the West Wing, pausing briefly to playfully dip his hand in snow and toss it at members of the media. “I always admire America,” the Dalai Lama said, “not economy or military power but mainly as a champion of democracy, freedom, human value, human creativity. These things.” He described President Obama as “supportive.” He noted that “even before he become president,” then-Sen. Obama phoned the Dalai Lama, and he did so after being elected president as well. “He always was showing his genuine concern,” he said. “Including his visit to Beijing. He express his concern about Tibet….So I express(ed) my thank(s) to him.” He said he discussed with the president his two commitments, “the promotion of human value in order to bring peace to the world. A peaceful family. A peaceful individual. I mentioned that.” Second, the Dalai Lama said, he discussed the “promotion of religious harmony,” and the need to “respect all major religious tradition(s). That is the basis of genuine harmony among the different religion(s).” Speaking “on behalf of 6 million people,” he also said he was there to speak for peace. Gibbs also said that President “commended the Dalai Lama’s ‘Middle Way’ approach, his commitment to nonviolence and his pursuit of dialogue with the Chinese government.  The President stressed that he has consistently encouraged both sides to engage in direct dialogue to resolve differences and was pleased to hear about the recent resumption of talks.  The President and the Dalai Lama agreed on the importance of a positive and cooperative relationship between the United States and China.” When the Dalai Lama visited the U.S. last October but did not meet with President Obama it marked the first time since 1991 that the Dalai Lama was in Washington, DC and did not meet with the president. The visit was rescheduled until after President Obama met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in China in November.  White House officials argued that an improved US-China relationship could be beneficial to Tibet as well. “From the outset, there has been no question of President Obama not at the appropriate time meeting His Holiness, whom he holds in great esteem, “Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, the Dalai Lama's Special Envoy said in a statement. “Taking a broader and long-term perspective, His Holiness agreed to meet the President after the November US-China Summit.” But earlier this month, when the rescheduled meeting with the Dalai Lama was announced, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said, ”We urge the U.S. side to fully understand the high sensitivity of Tibet-related issues, honor its commitment to recognizing Tibet as part of China and opposing 'Tibet independence.” Ma urged the Obama administration to cancel the meeting "so as not to cause further damage to Sino-U.S. relations.” Fleet’s In! It could be seen as a positive sign, sailors from a five-ship group of U.S. Navy warships, led by the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, docked in Hong Kong yesterday, with five thousand sailors allowed to dock and visit tourist spots. Allowing US sailors to dock is no small thing. After the US sold arms to Taiwan during the previous administration and President George W. Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., presented the Dalai Lama with a Congressional Gold Medal, the Chinese government initially refused to let the USS Kitty Hawk dock in Hong Kong in 2007. On the other hand, the South China Morning Post reported h that “there was little warmth in the welcome from” the Chinese government’s People’s Liberation Army for the US Navy ships. “While local PLA chiefs usually snap up US consulate invitations to tours and parties aboard US carriers in Hong Kong, none are expected to accept offers to visit the USS Nimitz and its four support ships during their four-day rest and recreation stop in Hong Kong, according to officials. Senior PLA brass were conspicuous by their absence at the traditional welcoming reception on the Nimitz last night – an apparent snub following Washington's recent decision to sell US$6.4 billion worth of arms to Taiwan, an act that saw Beijing promise to shelve military exchanges between the two nations.” The senior administration official said "the notion that we have not achieved effective cooperation with China is not borne out by the record. It’s a complex relationship, it has its ups and downs.
But our approach to China is that we want to have the kind of relationship where we can maintain cooperation where our interests converge, and where we have disagreements we’re able to voice them candidly." The official said that recently in coverage of the US-China relationship, there has been a great deal of focus on the arms sales to Taiwan and today’s meeting with the Dalai Lama. "But the Chinese have known for months that we were doing this. President Obama told President Hu about both in Beijing" last November. "Just because these events are taking place now doesn’t meant they haven’t always been in the queue. It’s a misinterpretation that we’ve moved in some new direction." No Silly Questions The Dalai Lama today also told reporters that he told President Obama that more women should be in leadership positions. “The female (is) biologically more sensitive about…other suffering. The president agreed (with) that. So I just express I wish the amount of leadership more female, should be because of that. Should take leadership role.” An aide to the Dalai Lama said His Holiness would take questions later in the day, after meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “So make some preparation, some questions,” the Dalai Lama jokingly admonished the press. “Good questions! Don’t ask silly questions!” -jpt

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