As rumors fly that U.S. President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama will both attend the National Prayer Breakfast on February 5, Beijing reiterated its strong opposition to meetings between the exiled spiritual leader and foreign politicians.
“Tibet-related issues bear on China’s core interest and national feelings. We are against any country’s interference in China’s domestic affairs under the pretext of Tibet-related issues, and are opposed to any foreign leader’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in any form,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a press conference on Tuesday.
According to John Rizzo, the communications director for Senator Bob Casey (a co-chair of the prayer breakfast), the Dalai Lama “was invited by the organizers of the event” (rather than by the White House). The Dalai Lama “plans to be there,” Rizzo told The Huffington Post. The U.S. president historically attends the event as well – meaning Thursday could be the first time Obama and the Dalai Lama have appeared together in public.
The two men have met together three times previously (in 2010, 2011, and 2014). No media personnel were allowed to cover those meetings, which each took place in the Map Room of the White House (rather than the more official Oval Office, where George W. Bush hosted the Dalai Lama in 2007). Obama also famously declined to meet with the Dalai Lama in October of 2009, sparking widespread accusations that the president was giving in to Chinese pressure.
In protest of the potential meeting, China sought to remind Obama of the damage his actions could do to the U.S.-China relationship. “We hope that the U.S. side can fulfill its commitment on Tibet-related issues and properly deal with relevant matters while keeping in mind the overall interest of bilateral relations,” Hong Lei said.
A commentary in Xinhua warned that Obama should not forget his trip to China in November 2014, where discussions held with President Xi Jinping gave Obama “a better understanding of Chinese people’s cherishing of their national unity and stability.” The commentary also noted that meeting with the Dalai Lama would violate one of the principles of Xi’s vision for a “new type of great power relationship” – namely, mutual respect for each others’ core interests.
China believes that the Dalai Lama’s ultimate goal is Tibetan independence, an interpretation the U.S. does not share. In a White House readout of Obama’s last meeting with the Dalai Lama, in February 2014, Obama made it crystal clear that “Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China and that the United States does not support Tibet independence.” However, Obama voiced “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.”
On the surface, the Dalai Lama’s inclusion in the prayer breakfast – a religious rather than political function – should be more palatable to China than a formal meeting with the president in the White House. However, the public nature of the event is causing concern in Beijing. Though Chinese leaders are doubtless aware their protests will fall on deaf ears, they must continue to reiterate their displeasure.
Despite the strong words, we’re unlikely to see any real fallout in U.S.-China relations. There were no major consequences to Obama’s meetings with the Dalai Lama in 2011 and 2014 – a far cry from the Chinese reaction to U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s meeting in 2012. In 2010, China did cut off military exchanges with the U.S., but that came in reaction to a new arms sale to Taiwan rather than to Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama.