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An opportunity on Tibet


The Dalai Lama's visit to Washington this week has put a temporary strain on US-China relations, though it is unlikely that the honours bestowed on the religious leader will cause irreparable damage.

The White House was quick to point out that President George W. Bush's private meeting was not intended to be a 'poke in the eye', and acknowledged Beijing's concerns by not holding their personal meeting in the Oval Office or releasing photos. Mr Bush had also personally informed President Hu Jintao , when they met in Australia last month, that the Dalai Lama would receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

Unfortunately, the timing of the Dalai Lama's visit to Washington coincides with the 17th party congress, although this does not appear to be an intentional slight. The US Congress voted to award the medal late last year, and planning for the event has been under way for months, whereas the dates of the 17th National Congress were released only recently. However, Chinese official statements denouncing the Dalai Lama's visit to the US were unusually harsh.

Outside China, the Dalai Lama's political appeal is tangible. The US is very much aligned with European and other allies who welcome the Nobel Peace Prize winner, as evidenced by the Dalai Lama's recent meetings with the German, New Zealand and Australian heads of state.

Despite a particularly polarised political environment in the US, the Dalai Lama has been warmly received by both Democrats and Republicans, and was even the catalyst of the unusual circumstance of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Mr Bush willingly appearing on the same stage.

Mr Bush is known as a 'man of faith' and his respect for the religious figure is reciprocated by the Dalai Lama. Speaking in Washington, the Dalai Lama said that while he disagreed with some of Mr Bush's policies, including US support for dictatorships around the world, he described the president as a 'very nice person, I like him!'


Speaking at the 17th National Congress, Mr Hu made an overture to Taiwan, offering to negotiate a peace treaty under the 'one China' principle. Washington responded positively to the statement and, likewise, the US supports dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Beijing. Direct contact between the Dalai Lama's emissaries and Beijing was initiated in 2002, and six rounds of negotiations have taken place, with the last dialogue in June.

Additionally, the Dalai Lama has been forthright in his acknowledgement that Tibet is a part of China. He asserts that his desire for Tibetan autonomy is consistent with the Chinese constitution and limited to Tibetan cultural, economic, educational and environmental spheres, with foreign and military affairs purely Chinese national concerns. When asked directly if Tibet is a part of China, he responds simply: 'Yes.'

The 14th Dalai Lama presents Beijing its best opportunity to improve the Tibet situation and end separatist rumblings through a negotiated settlement. At 72 years old, he is still willing to negotiate with Beijing, pointing out that he met Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping in 1954.

Strong rapport with world leaders also enhances his standing, ensuring that the international community would support an agreement that he endorses. The current Dalai Lama enjoys legitimacy among exiled and Chinese Tibetans, something his successor will most likely not benefit from, making a settlement in the future difficult if not impossible to achieve.


The US and China have a strong relationship with many common points of interest high on the agenda, including trade and product safety, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and energy security. New issues will become increasingly important, such as climate change and the peaceful use of space.

Mr Bush and the Dalai Lama agree that there is 'one China' and there is no evidence that either seeks to split Tibet from China. Diverging perceptions and interpretations of human rights between the US and China is not a new phenomenon, nor has it fundamentally undermined the bilateral relationship thus far.


With US-China interests aligned on several global issues, and willingness to explore greater pluralism within the Communist Party and society, an opportunity presents itself to Mr Hu. The time might be right to extend an olive branch to the Dalai Lama. He appears to be an agreeable interlocutor and the best opportunity for the Chinese leadership to achieve progress in resolving the Tibet issue - an accomplishment which would greatly improve China's image in the world.

Drew Thompson is the director of China Studies and Starr Senior Fellow at The Nixon Centre in Washington