Obama-Dalai Lama meeting mishandled

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When President Obama failed to meet with the Dalai Lama last fall before going to Beijing, that non-meeting became shorthand for his administration’s overly solicitous approach to China’s sensitive spots—generating both praise and criticism. With the U.S.-China relationship hitting the skids in recent months, last week’s meeting between President Obama and the Dalai Lama became symbolic of the current tensions in the U.S.-China relationship and a focal point for speculation about whether the Obama administration is taking a tougher line on China.

Unfortunately, the White House tried to be too cute with the meeting—playing “hide the Dalai Lama” with the media and otherwise attempting to downplay the significance of the meeting, none of which blunted China’s outrage. With these results, it is little wonder that the Obama administration’s China policy is increasingly viewed as both disconnected from American values, and not very effective in protecting American interests—a deadly combination. To change this dynamic, President Obama should rethink his approach and elevate issues of human rights and democracy in China he has heretofore downplayed. If President Obama were interested in pursuing a more principled approach to China, Tibet would be as good a place as any to start.

To begin with, President Obama should own his relationship with the Dalai Lama. Stop with the weasel words about meeting with the Dalai Lama in his capacity as a revered religious leader and international man of peace. These are certainly apt descriptors for the Dalai Lama, but President Obama did not meet him to compare Nobel Prize medals or receive a teaching on the Buddha Dharma. U.S. officials should acknowledge up front that the explicit purpose of such meetings is to talk with the legitimate representative of the Tibetan people about political issues affecting Tibet.

The president should also treat this like the serious political meeting that it is by holding it in the place where he holds the rest of his “work” meetings—the Oval Office. He should be seen in public, or at least by the White House press corps, physically standing with the Dalai Lama. (And next time, make sure someone moves the pile of garbage bags before you send him out the back door.) Likewise, Secretary Clinton should welcome him with the same well-worn red carpet that greets every other dignitary arriving at the front doors of Foggy Bottom, rather than sneaking him in through the basement. While optics are less important than the substance of meetings, there is the matter of dignity and appropriateness. Moreover, protocol matters to the Chinese government, to the Tibetan people, and to other countries deciding whether and how their top officials receive the Dalai Lama.

The protocol and atmospherics for these meetings also matter because treating the Dalai Lama with less than full diplomatic courtesies and using obfuscating language to describe these encounters undermines U.S. policy. The Tibetan Policy Act of 2002—the legal basis for U.S. policy on Tibet—requires that “the President and the Secretary should encourage the Government of the People’s Republic of China to enter into a dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives leading to a negotiated agreement on Tibet.” If the United States doesn’t in all respects treat the Dalai Lama as the Tibetans’ political leader, it seems pretty unreasonable to then turn around and ask the Chinese to consider him their partner for substantive negotiations on the future of Tibet. Beyond reeking with hypocrisy, such behavior also validates Chinese criticisms that the U.S. is only using Tibet and other sensitive issues as political tools to “contain” or “humiliate” China.

There should also be a moratorium on moral equivalence in talking about the situation in Tibet and Sino-Tibetan talks. When the president of the United States calls for dialogue “to resolve any concerns and differences the two sides may have”, it sounds like he is talking about a disputed soccer match rather than the occupation and brutalization of Tibet. Such “evenhandedness” lets the Chinese side off the hook and pressurizes the Dalai Lama in a way that is not conducive to a positive outcome. Last week’s White House statement supporting the “preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans” is an improvement, but is conspicuously silent on the locus of the threats to Tibetan identity or human rights.

Finally, there should be a more comprehensive and sustained effort to work with European and other allies—including India—on greater harmonization of policy, or at least messaging on Tibet. This was something that the Bush Administration made substantial progress on under the leadership of its Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues Paula Dobriansky (disclosure: she is my former boss), and which the current administration has largely abandoned.

To be effective, these and other steps must be taken as part of a broader shift that recognizes the inherent constraints on a relationship between two countries with such divergent political systems, sources of legitimacy and world-views. This would go a long way toward demonstrating to both the American people and Beijing that this administration understands the U.S.-China relationship cannot move past the transactional state while the Chinese regime maintains its present authoritarian posture, including on Tibet.

Kelley Currie is a senior fellow with the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, and served as a State Department official during the George W. Bush administration.

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