On Friday, February 21st, President Barack Obama met with the 14th Dalai Lama in the Map Room of the White House, despite fervent protest from Beijing. This was not the first encounter between President Obama and the Dalai Lama, who already met twice: in February 2010 and July 2011. Both times, the Chinese government rebuked President Obama’s involvement in the Tibetan issue, claiming such meetings with the Dalai Lama gravely jeopardized Sino-America relations.
Outside the People’s Republic of China, the 14th Dalai Lama is acknowledged as the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. In 1951, after ratifying the Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, the Dalai Lama worked briefly with the Chinese government; he was even elected as a delegate in the National People’s Congress and met Mao Zedong in Beijing. After the failure of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising, the Dalai Lama fled Potala Palace in Lhasa with his supporters for India, where he established the government of Tibet in exile in Dharamsala.
In recent years, many world leaders – the late Czech President Vaclav Havel, the President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofsadt, German Chancellor Angela Merkel – have met with the Dalai Lama, all to angry opposition from Beijing.
Sometimes, the exchange of diplomatic disapprobation resulted in punishment: the Chinese government canceled the EU-China Summit planned in December 2008 in Lyon, France. The reason? Then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in Poland at the 25th-anniversary commemoration of the Dalai Lama’s Nobel Peace Prize.
France’s Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner had rebuffed the warning of the Chinese government, saying that even “[France] cannot have foreign policies dictated, even by our friends.”
Compared to France’s approach, the White House’s attitude towards the Tibetan issue during the Friday meeting was more cautious and ambivalent. A carefully worded announcement read,
“The United States supports the Dalai Lama’s ‘middle way’ approach of neither assimilation nor independence for Tibetans in China. The United States recognizes Tibet to be a part of the People’s Republic of China and we do not support Tibetan independence. The United States strongly supports human rights and religious freedom in China.”
In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry described the Dalai Lama as a “separatist” and claimed that the “‘middle way’ approach is deceptive, and in nature is a political guideline for ‘Tibet independence’, which the Chinese government will absolutely not tolerate.” Beijing interpreted President Obama’s encounter with Dalai Lama as a “gross interference” into Chinese internal affairs; pundits saw this as Washington’s reaction against China’s establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, which escalated the already high tensions with Japan over disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
China is a trading partner with many EU countries, and possess enormous holdings in the American market. With deepening Chinese-U.S. political and economic links, the White House managed – this time – to kept the meeting low-key (the event wasn’t even announced until Thursday) and to sidestep from the central Tibetan question by denouncing Tibetan independence. But every action demands a reaction – the issue, at this point, is still outstanding.