Following President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, China issued a strongly worded statement. Importantly, the meeting between the two men took place in the Map Room of the White House, as opposed to the Oval Office, which is typically used for greeting visiting heads of state. The statement read in part, “Such an act has grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs, hurt the feelings of Chinese people and damaged the Sino-American relations.” The statement continued, “China objects firmly to any foreign leader’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in any form and opposes to any country, or anyone, to interfere in China’s internal affairs by using the Dalai Lama.”
This meeting and a February 2010 meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama both drew strong condemnation from China. But importantly, China’s unhappiness is largely symbolic and any meetings between an American president and the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader are unlikely to be the catalyst for deteriorating U.S.-Sino relations. What is likely to cause deteriorating U.S.-Sino relations are events on the Korean peninsula, issues involving Taiwan or if Obama and Congressional leaders are unable to resolve the logjam over raising the U.S. debt ceiling limit.
The U.S. and China have a co-dependent relationship. Each needs to cooperate on a whole range of issues from military to economic. Importantly, when the Obama administration has found that it needs Chinese cooperation on Iran and North Korea, as it did during Obama’s first year in office, Obama declined to meet with the Dalai Lama in favor of winning Chinese UN Security Council support for efforts aimed at punishing Tehran and Pyongyang. While the Obama administration has yet to respond in detail to China’s objections over the visit, the White House stressed that the U.S. still supports the status quo and is not calling for Tibet to gain full independence. “The President reiterated his strong support for the preservation of the unique religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions of Tibet and the Tibetan people throughout the world. He underscored the importance of the protection of human rights of Tibetans in China,” the White House stressed in a statement following the meeting.
While China considers the Dalai Lama to be “splittist,” the Dalai Lama contends that he is simply seeking autonomy for Tibet and not full independence. “Dalai is a political exile cloaked under religion but engaged in splittist and peace-sabotaging attempts,” a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry said in 2007. “Wherever Dalai goes, or in what name, the issue is not personal or religious. He represents a clique trying to split the country and seeking Tibetan independence, to which the Chinese government and people are firmly opposed.”
The “Middle Way” approach, advocated by the Obama administration, has become official U.S. policy, much in the same way as U.S. policy towards Taiwan, that of not recognizing the breakaway island. If the U.S. were to do either, although not provoking war with China, it would make it more difficult to conduct day to day business between the two superpowers. The international system is predicated on allowing another global superpower to conduct its internal affairs unfettered and the U.S. views Taiwan and Tibet as internal issues and outside of the purview of U.S. interests. This is not to suggest the U.S. allows China to pursue relations with Taiwan and Tibet uninterrupted. The U.S. has a large naval presence in the Pacific and when tensions have escalated in the past, the U.S. has simply sailed its navy between Taiwan and Mainland China.
U.S. policy towards Taiwan and Tibet is not intended to anger the Chinese. U.S.-Taiwanese policy is based on several elements. The first, there is one China. Second, the U.S. encourages cross-strait dialogue. Third, any disagreements between Taiwan and Mainland China must be resolved peacefully. The U.S. has consistently demonstrated that it will provide for the defense of Taiwan should Mainland China decide that it wishes to reclaim its neighbor. James C. P. Chang of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs writes, “in recognition of Taiwan’s importance role in international issues, the U.S. will support Taiwan’s membership where statehood is not a prerequisite, and will support opportunities for Taiwan’s voice to be heard in organizations where its membership is not possible.”
Tibet exists in the very same sphere that Taiwan exists. The U.S. must balance strategic interests against what is feasible. Pressuring China to allow more Tibetans freedom of religion is feasible but pressuring China to grant Tibet full independence is not realistic. Since the early 1990s, when American presidents have sought to remind China that they still consider issues relating to Tibet to be important; human, religious, political and cultural rights, the Dalai Lama has found a willing listener in the president.
President George H. W. Bush was the first sitting president to meet with the Dalai Lama in 1991. Importantly, the meeting was private and behind closed doors. However, any meetings between a U.S. president and the Dalai Lama will lack the fanfare reserved for visiting heads of state. For one, the Dalai Lama is the exiled spiritual leader and does not govern a sovereign state. Secondly, a state dinner or a visit full of pomp and circumstance would inflame China and undoubtedly elicit more of a forceful response.
The February 2010 meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama was held behind closed doors without a press presence. However, the president met with the Dalai Lama for well over an hour and stressed the importance of seeking a dialogue with China over the very same issues that the Obama administration stressed after their last meeting.
While China had issued a warning for the recent meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama to be called off, it nevertheless was held as planned but in a very relaxed setting, the White House Map Room. China’s warning that the meeting would irrevocably harm U.S.-Sino relations was an expected reaction. Following George H. W. Bush’s meeting, China said more or less the same thing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s scheduled meeting with Dai Bingguo, China’s State Councilor, could be affected by the Obama-Dalai Lama White House meeting. “It’s difficult to say at the moment whether this meeting will be affected,” said Jin Canrong of Renmin University in China. “But this meeting is quite important and whether it takes place or is canceled will give us an indication of what the follow-up impact will be.”
Additionally, Vice President Biden is scheduled to make a visit to China shortly followed by a visit to Washington by China’s Xi Jinping. However, for all of the potential problems that this visit could create it comes at a particularly sensitive time in U.S.-Sino relations. Since China is America’s largest creditor, the U.S. Congress’s potential inability to reach an agreement on raising the U.S. debt ceiling limit, could further strain U.S.-Chinese relations.
In light of these issues, during their Map Room visit, Obama stressed to the Dalai Lama the importance of U.S.-Sino cooperation on a range of issues. Perhaps, the White House had wished to postpone the Obama-Dalai Lama visit in light of the current debate in Congress over the debt limit and the impact that this will have on U.S.-Sino relations. However, given the importance that the Obama administration places on the protection of human rights in China, the administration realized that postponing the meeting was not an option.