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'A diplomatic rebuff'

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezFebruary 4, 2015

The Dalai Lama will join US President Barack Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast. But while China strongly opposes the meeting, analyst Robert Barnett tells DW tensions over the issue are likely to be short-lived.

President Barack Obama meets with the Dalai Lama in the Map Room of the White House, Feb. 21, 2014 (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Obama will meet the Dalai Lama at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, February 5, in Washington. It will be the fourth meeting between the two men and the first time they have been together in nearly a year. Each of the previous meetings has prompted objections from the Chinese government, which regards the Tibetan spiritual leader an anti-Chinese separatist.

According to media reports, the Dalai Lama will not have a speaking role at the prayer breakfast and will be seated with the audience. Nevertheless, the Chinese foreign ministry reacted by saying: "We are opposed to any foreign leaders meeting with the Dalai Lama in any form." China has ruled Tibet since 1950, and many Tibetans feel their intensely Buddhist culture is at risk of erosion by Beijing's political and economic domination.

Robert Barnett, Director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University, says in a DW interview, that while tensions in Sino-US ties are expected to rise due to this meeting, they are likely to be very minor and short-lived as the two powers have far too much at stake to risk serious damage resulting from this issue.

Robert Barnett
Barnett: 'The meeting will lead to some tensions, but these are likely to be very minor and short-lived'Image: Columbia University

DW: How important is the meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama?

Robert Barnett: It is the public nature of this event that makes it important. But this importance is of an unusual and unequal kind, because this event is much more important for the Chinese side than for the Americans. And this gives the US side and the Tibetans a diplomatic advantage in this instance.

This is the result of differing views about political symbolism. In the West, encounters of this kind can be presented as relatively inconsequential rituals celebrating notional values or good will, rather than concrete policies. But Chinese diplomats regard symbolic events as extremely significant politically. So they treat any public encounter between the US President and the Dalai Lama as if it marked a major upgrade in official US support for the Dalai Lama's objectives.

There has only been one such public meeting before, which was when President Bush awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama in public in 2007. Though the Americans did not see this as a significant political event, it was viewed as a very major setback by Beijing, and they shifted their Tibet policy to a markedly tougher stance immediately afterwards.

In fact, it then became clear that a major reason why Chinese officials had always complained so vociferously about private meetings in the past had been exactly to deter western leaders from ever agreeing to a public meeting. And till this week they surely believed that they had persuaded President Obama not to go to that stage with the Dalai Lama. So this is an important moment for Beijing, a diplomatic rebuff.

The National Prayer Breakfast is held by a number of US congressmen in February each year to celebrate their support for religious freedom, and the President always attends it. So his attendance at the event can be seen as relating to religion rather than politics, and as having no bearing on Sino-US policy.

Indeed, State Department officials have already pointed out that it is not even a meeting - it's just an appearance by the two leaders at the same event, at which they may not even speak more than a few words together. So this is a smart device for them, actually much milder than a private meeting, but at the same time sufficient to reassure their domestic audience that they have not yielded to Chinese pressure.

This puts China's diplomats in a somewhat awkward position. They will look overly aggressive abroad if they complain too much about an event that is clearly relatively minor for the US, but they will look unusually weak if they back down from their long-held principle of objecting aggressively to meetings of any kind between national leaders and the Dalai Lama. And this week they have already declared that this week's encounter in DC is actually "a meeting" - so now Beijing cannot easily retreat from the position that it has created for itself.

Are Obama and the Dalai Lama expected to hold talks?

The two leaders – one political and one religious, at least in theory – are principal participants at the event. The President will give the keynote speech, and the Dalai Lama is expected to say a prayer. But the two may not speak together at all, or only briefly, and if they do, it is most likely to be about the issue of religious freedom.

At the same event last year, President Obama in his speech listed countries where there are significant restrictions on religions, and specifically mentioned the pressures faced by Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims in China.

It was only one sentence, but it was the main item in the media reports the next day. That is likely to be on the agenda for this year's event as well. The President is going to reassure the Chinese at some point, either in his speech or through a spokesman, that his view of China's sovereignty over Tibet has not changed, and that he does not support Tibetan independence. But otherwise the focus is likely to be on symbolism rather than content.

What is the Dalai Lama expected to gain from meeting Obama in public?

The Dalai Lama had unusual success in the past 25 years in getting the Tibetan issue onto the agenda of Western governments and the Western media, and has met at least 71 national leaders since 2000 alone. This, with other factors – such as the popular support he received when first allowed to visit Taiwan in 1997 – led the Chinese to hold ten rounds of talks with his representatives over the eight years from 2002.

Dalai Lama calls inter-faith meeting in India (Photo: EPA/MONEY SHARMA)
Barnett: 'The Dalai Lama had unusual success in the past 25 years in getting the Tibetan issue onto the agenda of Western governments'Image: picture-alliance/dpa

But after 2008, when major unrest broke out in Tibet, policy in China became much more reactive and conservative, China's diplomacy in Western Europe became more aggressive and successful, the talks with the exile Tibetans ground to a halt, and the number of western leaders ready to receive the Dalai Lama dropped to around two a year.

So this shared event with the US President is of great significance to the exile Tibetans as a signal to China that the Tibet issue is still a live one for the US, one for which the US will risk at least a modicum of Chinese displeasure.

That kind of messaging was relatively effective in the 1990s, but it is not known whether it will work with Beijing today, where there is a new and much more robust leadership than in the recent past.

The Dalai Lama and his officials take the view that Xi Jinping will turn out to be more open to negotiation than his predecessors, because of reports that his father was friendly towards the Dalai Lama in the past, and rumors that his wife or others near him might be sympathetic towards Buddhism. No-one knows whether or not Beijing will or will not move towards serious talks with the Dalai Lama in the future, or if western support will make this outcome more likely or less.

Chinese media has described the breakfast as tantamount to backing Tibetan independence. Why?

China argues that for any politician to meet the Dalai Lama in any capacity means that that politician supports Tibetan independence. This is, for non-Chinese observers, the oddest and most puzzling of their arguments, because the Dalai Lama gave up asking for independence twenty years ago. He has said since then that all he seeks is a "high degree of autonomy" or "genuine autonomy" for Tibet, which he accepts would be part of China.

Tibet Neujahr Losar Potala
Many Tibetans feel their culture is at risk of erosion by Beijing's political and economic dominationImage: China Photos/Getty Images

There is in fact a series of arguments that lies behind the Chinese accusation. According to that argument, the Dalai Lama asked for autonomy in the early 1950s, but then changed to seeking independence in the 1960s and 1970s. Then, in the late 1980s, he stopped calling for independence, but still asked for "association" between Tibet and China, which is a form of independence.

So Chinese officials argue that these precedents are signs of duplicity. They often point to the fact that he still refers to Tibet as a country or level other accusations against him which they say show he is stirring up foreign powers to undermine China's unity. Whether sound or not, this view is not limited to officials and is very strongly felt within China.

Could this meeting have any repercussions for Tibetans?

There are some observers who feel that the involvement of the Western powers in the Tibetan issue exacerbates tensions in Tibet and leads to more repressive and defensive polices by China. Others argue that China will not make concessions to Tibetans without foreign pressure. But that pressure is seen as provocative by many people in China, probably the vast majority. So this argument is unresolved.

There is also a thesis put forward by some Western scholars, and by some Tibetans too, that symbolic gestures of foreign support are counter-productive or even damaging. News of the event this week will be relayed into Tibet by Tibetan-language and Chinese-language radio stations in the US and Europe, so people will know about it and many will quietly celebrate it.

Flash-Galerie 60. Jahrestag der "friedlichen Befreiung" Tibets durch die VR China
China has ruled Tibet since 1950, and many Tibetans feel their culture is at risk of erosion by Beijing's political and economic dominationImage: picture alliance/landov

But, according to this argument, this risks leading some Tibetans in Tibet to believe that Western support is significant and practical – although it is clear to outsiders that it is only moral or symbolic.

As a result, Tibetans might sacrifice themselves or stage immensely dangerous protest under a false impression that effective support will come to their aid in the form of major Western pressure on Beijing.

How is the meeting likely to affect Sino-US ties?

It will lead to some tensions, but these are likely to be very minor and short-lived – these two powers have far too much at stake to risk serious damage accruing from this issue. And these days there are plenty of policy advisers in Beijing who will be arguing that a joint appearance at a Prayer Breakfast where nothing much is said is a domestic media exercise about which China need only make token complaints.

We don't know which side will dominate in this argument, but we can be sure that it will take place. The optimum outcome of this event would be if it showed that the US has found a symbolic, mild way to demonstrate robustness to its home audience and concerns to China regarding the situation in Tibet without damaging overall relations.

Robert Barnett is Director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University in New York. His books include Tibetan Modernities: Notes from the Field (with Ronald Schwartz, Brill 2008), Lhasa: Streets with Memories (Columbia, 2006) and A Poisoned Arrow: The Secret Petition of the 10th Panchen Lama (TIN, 1997).