Dalai Lama gets his moment
By Eli Clifton and Charles Fromm
WASHINGTON - United States President Barack Obama met with the exiled Tibetan
spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on Thursday in the White House, raising
objections from China and adding to existing US-China tensions over Taiwan arms
sales, Internet censorship and hacking, tariffs on Chinese tires and calls for
Beijing to readjust its currency.
The low-profile meeting, which noticeably took place in the White House Map
Room instead of the Oval Office, was described by the Dalai Lama as having
included discussions on democracy, freedom and human rights.
"The president stated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet's unique
religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the
protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People's Republic of China,"
said a statement released by the White House.
In a concession to Beijing, the White House postponed the meeting from last
year so as not to hurt relations before Obama's November trip to China, but
state-run media outlets in China and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs
have expressed displeasure.
"We urge the US to fully recognize the high sensitivity of Tibet-related
issues, strictly abide by its commitment of recognizing Tibet as part of China
and opposing 'Tibet independence', cancel immediately the wrong decision of
arranging a meeting between President Obama and Dalai, not to provide Dalai any
arena or convenience to engage in anti-China splitist activities, not to
undermine the stability of Tibet and interfere in China's internal affairs so
as to protect China-US relations from being further undermined," said a
statement posted on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website on February 10.
While the Chinese have expressed opposition, the meeting in the Map Room was
nowhere near as high-profile - and diplomatically problematic - as the 2007
decision by US president George W Bush's to present the Dalai Lama with the
Congressional Medal of Honor.
The Chinese responded by pressuring foreign governments not to host visits from
the Dalai Lama, which led to anti-Beijing protests in ethnically Tibetan parts
of China and a violent crackdown on protesters by authorities in Tibet. China
went on to list Tibet as one of its "core interests", a warning to the US and
other countries not to tamper in issues related to Tibetan sovereignty.
"Generally, and despite attempts at nuance in timing and location of such
meetings by White Houses past and present, Chinese public reactions rarely seem
to moderate in response," said Charles Freeman, a China expert at the Center
for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in an interview on the CSIS
Tensions over the Dalai Lama's visit are only the latest war of words to erupt
between Washington and Beijing in recent months as the two countries deal with
ongoing political, military and economic tensions.
In September, Obama authorized a 35% emergency tariff on Chinese tire imports
in order to curb a "surge" of Chinese tires which, according to US trade
unions, have cost 7,000 US factory workers their jobs. Beijing responded
quickly to condemn the US tariffs and threatened to levy its own tariffs
against US products.
In January, Google announced that e-mail accounts owned by diplomats,
human-rights activists and journalists had been infiltrated by Chinese hackers,
leading Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to deliver a speech outlining the
administration's position on intellectual property theft, cyber-security and
Chinese Internet censorship.
China responded by accusing the US of "information imperialism" and denied
charges that the government participated in the cyber-attacks.
Earlier this month, the Beijing-Washington relationship hit another rough patch
when China threatened to impose sanctions on US companies participating in an
upcoming $6.4 billion arms deal with Taiwan.
As the global economic crisis stressed both China and the US economies, China
has sought to shift the investments from its balance of payments surplus away
from US dollars and into equities and commodities while Obama has been under
pressure to address the growing trade deficit with China.
With the Dalai Lama's visit comes the latest round of harsh words between
Washington and Beijing, leaving analysts to try and pick apart whether the
growing political, economic and military tensions are part of a larger trend or
the symptom of domestic pressures - most likely stemming from the global
financial crisis - on both Chinese and US leadership.
China experts are warning that Chinese President Hu Jintao may retaliate for
Thursday's meeting by canceling his scheduled trip to Washington in April to
attend the Nuclear Security Summit.
Indeed, the tensions between China and the US have growing global importance as
cooperation between the two countries is crucial on a number of multilateral
issues, including combating climate change, engineering a recovery from the
global financial crisis and addressing the nuclear programs of North Korea and
Iran - although Tehran denies that it is pursuing military capabilities.
Managing this increasingly important and complicated relationship will require
changes from both Beijing and Washington in how they conduct diplomacy in the
"For Chinese leaders, that will mean drawing a fine line between rhetoric and
reality, limiting protests to gestures for their domestic audience even as they
work with the United States on a number of fronts," wrote Douglas H Paal, vice
president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in the
Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.
"For its part, the United States must maintain its principled commitment to
human rights but also demonstrate some restraint on issues China considers
'core interests'," he said.