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
"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
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
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
"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
Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be
reached at[email protected]