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    Greater China
     Sep 26, 2009
Obama takes the 'middle way' on Tibet
By Saransh Sehgal

DHARAMSALA, India - United States President Barack Obama seems to be taking a "middle way" approach in dealing with the Tibet issue. While he wants to be sympathetic and friendly to the Dalai Lama and his cause, he by no means wants to offend the Chinese government by getting too close to the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile.

Or at least this can be read from the messages conveyed by some of his aides during a recent visit here, home to the Tibetan government in exile, to meet the Dalai Lama.

For Tibetans in exile and their supporters, a meeting of the US president with the Dalai Lama is of great encouragement as it symbolizes the support of the world's superpower to the Free

Tibet movement. Before Obama, all US presidents since 1991 met the Dalai Lama when he visited the United States "informally" or "by chance". So, Tibetans here felt greatly disappointed when Obama did not meet their "living Buddha" during his US trip in April.

Therefore, the arrival here of the US delegation - including Valerie Jarrett, an adviser to the president, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria Otero, the Obama administration's new special coordinator for Tibetan affairs, and Michael Strautmanis, chief of staff to Valerie Jarrett - on September 14 boosted hope that a meeting with Obama might be arranged for the Dalai Lama during his US visit in October.

An Obama-Dalai meeting certainly would anger Beijing. Last December, Beijing postponed the 11th China-European Union summit in protest after French President Nicolas Sarkozy's met with the Dalai Lama in Poland. In March, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi made it clear that China would take any meeting with the Dalai Lama by leaders of countries with diplomatic ties with China as an offense.

After a closed-door meeting with the US guests, the Dalai Lama issued a statement through his office, "Ms Jarrett conveyed the president's greetings to his holiness and informed him that she was sent to brief him about the Obama administration's approach to the Tibetan issue." And "his holiness is looking forward to meeting President Obama after his visit to China".

If anything, this is equivalent to saying that Obama will not meet the Dalai Lama during the latter's current visit to the US, because the US president is set to visit Beijing in November. It was said that Obama sent the envoy to persuade the Dalai Lama not to visit Washington during his current US trip. The Tibetans in exile now hope that Obama could meet the Dalai Lama shortly after his maiden visit to Beijing, though the White House makes no firm commitment.

Arriving in Memphis, Tennessee, on Tuesday - barely a week after he met Obama's envoy - the Dalai Lama started his three-week North American trip.

"His Holiness the Dalai Lama left his residence for a 23-day scheduled visit to the US and Canada," said Tenzin Taklha, the joint secretary of the Dalai Lama's Dharamsala office.

"During his stay in the US, there is no scheduled meeting between the Dalai Lama and President Obama. He will meet Obama sometime late, after his visit to China in November," Taklha said, adding that "meeting President Obama after his China visit would be more fruitful and constructive".

Jarrett said in a statement she emphasized Obama's commitment to supporting the Tibetan people and securing their human and civil rights. She also said Obama commended the Dalai Lama for looking for a solution based on autonomy within China.

Obama's emissaries were obviously keen to assure the Dalai Lama that just because the president would not meet him before his first official visit to Beijing, it did not mean he was not concerned about the Tibet issue. The Dalai Lama expressed the hope the Tibetans would see progress in the resolution of their differences with China during Obama's presidency, according to the statement.

The team also met Tibetan premier in exile Samdhong Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama's special envoy Lodi Gyari and other influential Tibetan groups. "What we expect is some concrete steps by the Obama administration and we hope the United States will walk the extra mile on our behalf while dealing with China," Tibetan Youth Congress president Tsewang Rinzin told Agence France-Presse. "During my meeting with Jarrett, I also referenced Obama's public address that the US will continue to fight for oppressed people," Rinzin said.

China reiterated its stance on the Dalai Lama. Soon after the meeting with Obama's aides was reported, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said China firmly opposed any meetings between the Dalai Lama and foreign officials in any form. China's position on the Tibet issue is clear and consistent.

"We are firmly opposed to the Dalai Lama's engagement in separatist activities against China in any country and in any name or identity. We oppose any force making use of this issue to interfere with China's internal affairs. The US side is very clear about China's position on this issue," Jiang said when asked about a possible meeting between the US president and the Dalai Lama.

The White House also issued a statement after the event. Mike Hammer, spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, said that Jarrett had conveyed Obama's "respect" for the Nobel Peace laureate who has spent 50 years in exile.

"Tibetan religion and culture have made significant contributions to the world and the president wished Ms Jarrett through her visit to honor them," Hammer said. He said the Dalai Lama told the delegation of his pacifist "middle way" approach of seeking a future for Tibet within China, which sent troops into the Himalayan territory in 1950. "We think his views deserve our attention and that of the Chinese government," Hammer said.

However, for Tibetan exiles, this event came more as a frustrated disappointment as they had hoped the Obama aides went to India to schedule an Obama-Dalai meet. But when news emerged that the meeting was delayed, they said it was Obama playing smart politics - or maybe his own middle way policy ahead of his visit to Beijing in November in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

"If Obama somehow shrugs off this meeting, it gives a very clear indication to China that the US is bending down," said Tsering Palden, president of the Tibetan Youth Congress activist group's branch in New York. "It really gives the wrong signal. It says the US is not ready to stand up to China. Tibetans have been waiting so much for this meeting, so that President Obama can take the message of Tibetans to China," he said.

Even Samdhong Rinpoche, the prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, accused the United States and other Western nations of appeasing China in regard to Tibet. "A lot of nations are adopting a policy of appeasement," Rinpoche told a group of journalists after learning the president would not meet the Dalai Lama in Washington.

"Even the US government is doing some kind of appeasement. Today, economic interests are much greater than other interests," said Rinpoche. But later, showing a softer stance, he conceded, "I understand why Obama is not meeting the Dalai Lama before his Chinese trip. It is common sense. Obama should not irritate the Chinese leadership. China's greatest irritation is his holiness, wherever he goes.

"His support and sympathy is very important. Unless the Chinese leadership has the will to resolve Tibet, outside powers can only help but cannot take any decisive course. Tibet will always remain an internal issue of the PRC [People's Republic of China]," he added.

Obama will go to Beijing and perhaps other regional capitals after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit in Singapore on November 14-15 and during this he expects a healthy and stable US-China relationship.

Obama was reportedly worried that any meeting with the Dalai Lama before his visit to China might spoil the atmosphere for his talks with the Chinese leaders. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, China, as the US's largest creditor, could use its growing global clout to pressure world nations not to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader.

Analysts believe if a meeting with the Dalai Lama happened before Obama visited China, it would surely to spark an angry response and potentially undermine Obama's hopes of building stronger relations between the US and China.

But some Chinese scholars downplayed the political aspect of a meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama. Shen Dingli, a professor on US studies at the Institute of International Studies of Shanghai's Fudan University, was quoted by Chinese media as saying that Obama's decision must have been made out of economic and other interests that are vital to the US.

"I don't think we should feel provoked if Obama ever chooses to see the Dalai Lama," Shen said. "Neither should we see it as a gesture of pleasing China if Obama chooses not to see the Dalai Lama. Obama's decision is based on the interests of his own country."

Elliot Sperling, an expert on Tibet at Indiana University, said China "will certainly take note of the fact that Obama is treading carefully on the Dalai Lama. The Tibetans have been thoroughly accommodating. The Dalai Lama has given up most of the demands of the exile community for a country of their own and instead has vague demands for autonomy," he said. "Basically, they're in a position of weakness and the Chinese know it - and they're playing it for everything they can."

Ren Donglai, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies, told the Global Times, "The Dalai Lama wants to upgrade his international influence by meeting with the US president; the meeting with the Dalai Lama would be unwise against the backdrop of the escalating trade spat between China and the US. Obama needs to learn from the Sarkozy meeting."

Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be reached at info@mcllo.com.

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