Beijing’s muted response to Obama-Dalai Lama meet reveals shift in US-China ties

US boldness in challenging Beijing coupled with China's less tough reaction mark how much the two powers value their relationship

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 11:21am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 7:43pm

When the Dalai Lama came to Washington in 2009 on one of his frequent lecture tours, Barack Obama did not invite him to the White House as the new US president sought to start on the right foot with China.

More than four years later, Obama went ahead last week with his third meeting as president with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. China called in a US diplomat to protest but the encounter appeared almost routine, with no stronger repercussions immediately by Beijing.

The episode represents a subtle shift in the complex relationship between the world’s two largest economies as both sides cut through the veneer of hope for broad co-operation and prioritise key interests.

Obama, who came under domestic criticism for not seeing the Dalai Lama in 2009, has been increasingly unabashed about taking actions that irk China.

The Obama administration has challenged China over maritime disputes with neighbours, earlier this month questioning the legal basis for Beijing’s claims in the tense South China Sea.

“President Obama refrained in his first year from meeting the Dalai Lama and from doing other things in the hope that he was going to build a stable foundation and more trust in the US-China relationship,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

A failure to have this meeting ... would have made other countries’ leaders far less willing to stick their necks out to see the Dalai Lama
Bonnie Glaser, China expert

“I ultimately think that didn’t pan out and I think President Obama learned from that experience,” she said.

Obama voiced support for protection of human rights of Tibetans living under Chinese rule. But the White House also took pains to show that the meeting was private, with Obama meeting the Dalai Lama in the mansion’s residence and the press barred from covering it.

Despite demanding that Obama call off the Dalai Lama meeting, China went ahead with talks on Friday with the visiting US army chief of staff, General Ray Odierno, as the two powers work to improve military communication.

The Dalai Lama, who fled his homeland for India amid an abortive uprising in 1959, already enjoys a worldwide following and it is doubtful that a single meeting would move the needle on Tibet.

But Glaser argued that the reverse – Obama not seeing the Dalai Lama – would have had “profound” consequences.

“A failure to have this meeting, or going through Obama’s second term without a meeting, would have made other countries’ leaders far less willing to stick their necks out to see the Dalai Lama,” she said.

An eventual shift on Tibet?

China has taken much stronger action against other countries in its efforts to sideline the Dalai Lama. In 2008, China cancelled an EU summit over then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to meet the Nobel Peace laureate.

Matteo Mecacci, a former Italian lawmaker who is now president of the International Campaign for Tibet advocacy group, said that the lack of retaliation over Obama’s Dalai Lama meeting showed that China valued relations with Washington and understood that Tibet was a “consistent US interest”.

“European countries should learn from the US experience and coordinate a joint policy on Tibet to avoid the individual pressure coming from Beijing,” he said.

Robert Barnett, director of Columbia University’s Modern Tibet Studies Programme, said that Obama’s latest meeting with the Dalai Lama represented a shift as many Americans now perceived China’s responses as just “theatrical”. But Barnett said that China believed it has had success in forcing other countries to tread carefully on Tibet.

“For China, the fire-breathing strategy has been incredibly effective with certain powers, particularly in Western Europe,” he said.

China brands the Dalai Lama a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and has not met his envoys since 2010, leading some observers to believe that Beijing is simply waiting for his death in hopes that the Tibetan rights movement will fizzle out without the charismatic leader. The Dalai Lama is 78, although he keeps a rigorous schedule.

But Barnett said there were signs of a quiet policy debate in Beijing, with some officials looking for ways to address Tibetan grievances. More than 120 Tibetans have set themselves ablaze in recent years to protest what they call political, religious and cultural oppression by China.

“We do see signs of small experiments in local areas. You never know with China – it’s not the kind of political system that wants to flag a change,” Barnett said. “Its interests are to do the opposite, to make everything look like continuity.”