U.S. President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, on Friday. According to an official statement from the White House, during the meeting Obama expressed “his strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China.” He also encouraged “direct dialogue” between Chinese and Tibetans to resolve tensions, and emphasized that he does not support Tibetan independence.
Predictably, news of the meeting sparked vocal protests from China. China’s Foreign Ministry expressed its displeasure both in a specific statement issued by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying and during the regular Foreign Ministry press conference on Friday.
In the statement, Hua said that China was “deeply concerned” about the meeting. “By arranging a meeting between the President and the Dalai Lama, the US side will grossly interfere in the internal affairs of China, seriously violate norms governing international relations and severely impair China-US relations,” Hua said. She also repeated China’s usual claim that the Dalai Lama “has long been engaged in anti-China separatist activities under the cloak of religion.” Hua urged the United States to “immediately cancel the meeting.”
During Friday’s press conference, Hua expanded on this position. She denounced the Obama’s administration’s stated concerns about human rights in Tibet, saying that “Chinese people are in the best position to judge the human rights situation in Tibet-inhabited areas.” Hua added that “Tibet has scored remarkable progress in economic and social development” under Chinese rule. She also threatened consequences for Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama: “Any country, if it insists on harming China’s interests will also damage their own in the end.” The meeting, if carried out, would cause “severe damage to China-US relations,” Hua warned.
Meanwhile, Tashi Phuntsok, the Secretary for Information for the Tibetan government-in-exile, said that he was “happy” the meeting took place “even at the cost of Chinese displeasure.” According to USA Today, Phuntsok noted that China constantly applies pressure over the visits of the Dalai Lama to other countries. China’s ultimate goal, he said, is to “stop Tibetan engagement in the international arena.” If Obama canceled the meeting, it would have been seen as caving to Chinese pressure.
The White House did not cancel the meeting, which went on as scheduled Friday morning. Still, some saw signs that the administration was walking a fine line, insisting on holding the meeting even while trying to frame it in a way that might mollify China. For one thing, the White House only announced the meeting Thursday evening, perhaps in an attempt to forestall Beijing’s protests. Also, as with Obama’s previous two meetings, he will see the Dalai Lama in the Map Room, rather than the Oval Office where foreign leaders are typically welcomed. The Washington Post speculated that this move might be “an attempt to avoid the appearance of a formal meeting between two heads of state.”
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden, in announcing the meeting, was careful to underline that Obama was meeting with the Dalai Lama “in his capacity as an internationally respected religious and cultural leader.” A tweet from the National Security Council account announcing that the meeting was underway used the exact same phrase. Many read the repeated emphasis as an attempt to downplay the Dalai Lama’s political importance.
In her statement, Hayden reiterated that the U.S. recognizes of Tibet as a part of the People’s Republic of China, and expressed U.S. support for “the Dalai Lama’s ‘Middle Way’ approach of neither assimilation nor independence for Tibetans in China.” In other words, the Obama administration tried to reassure China that it does not support Tibetan separatists, and does not believe the Dalai Lama advocates for Tibetan independence. According to the official statement on the meeting, Obama and the Dalai Lama even “agreed on the importance of a positive and constructive relationship between the United States and China.”
However, Hayden was clear that the meeting is a sign of U.S. concerns about human rights abuses in Tibet. “We will continue to urge the Chinese government to resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives, without preconditions, as a means to reduce tensions,” she said. The U.S. State Department’s most recent report on human rights in China concluded that in 2012 human rights in Tibet “deteriorated markedly.” The report added that China’s government “engaged in the severe repression of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage by, among other means, strictly curtailing the civil rights of China’s ethnic Tibetan population, including the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and movement.”
The Obama administration is trying to show its respect for the Dalai Lama and its concern for Tibetan rights while not overly offending the government in Beijing. Obama has some experience of what happens when he fails this tightrope walk. In 2009, his decision not to meet with the Dalai Lama was widely criticized. Obama had reportedly not wanted to jeopardize his first state visit to Beijing by meeting the Tibetan leader.
When Obama did meet with the Dalai Lama in early 2010, he caught flak from both sides. Tibetan activists were outraged by perceptions that the Dalai Lama had not been accorded with the proper respect—a reading fueled by the infamous picture of the Buddhist leader walking past a trash pile while leaving the White House. Meanwhile, China attacked the Obama administration fiercely, calling the meeting a “wrong decision” that would “undermine the stability of Tibet” as well as damaging U.S.-China relations.
Since then, Obama seems to have discovered the proper balance for such meetings—quiet, low-key, but undeniable signs of support for the Tibetan spiritual leader. This allows Obama to satisfy everyone and no one at the same time, the usual result of a political compromise. China may be outwardly furious about the meeting, but keeping contact with the Dalai Lama private and unofficial nature will provide just enough cover to avoid serious consequences. Meanwhile, Tibetan activists will doubtless say the administration is not doing enough, but the meeting itself goes a long way towards offering symbolic support for Tibetan rights.