How a Tougher US Line on Dalai Lama Could Help China, and Tibet

Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama were together in the same Washington hotel ballroom in early February. They were not alone. Thousands of other people were also present, participating in the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event hosted by members of the U.S. Congress and routinely attended by American presidents.

Nevertheless, China was outraged. A meeting "in any form" between the U.S. president and the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet would harm China's "core interests" and "national sentiments" regarding Tibet, the Chinese foreign ministry said. Beijing routinely excoriates the Dalai Lama as a "splittist" and a "wolf in sheep's clothing."

 In the event, no meeting was held. Obama warmly welcomed the Tibetan religious leader from the podium, but there was no direct contact between the two men.

The U.S. National Security Council reiterated Obama's support for the Dalai Lama's teachings and the preservation of "Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions", which is the main thrust of U.S. policy on Tibet. The U.S. accepts that Tibet is part of China.

Looming questions

The Obama administration may have handled this situation with finesse, but larger questions about Tibet policy loom in the future. Many Tibet observers have long believed that Beijing's strategy is to await the Dalai Lama's death and replace him with a puppet controlled by the Communist Party.

This would deliver a serious blow to Tibetan morale following decades of repression, the inundation of Tibet with ethnic Chinese immigrants, and infrastructure building and resource extraction that have despoiled the environment and marginalized Tibetans.

In such a scenario, the world will be deprived of a compelling moral leader, and may expect China to press for recognition of its phony Dalai Lama with the same intensity with which it now demands that the world's capitals snub the real one. For example, before leading a large trade delegation to Beijing in 2013, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly promised not to meet again with the Dalai Lama.  Norway refused official meetings with him in 2014 to break out of the deep freeze Beijing imposed on Oslo after the 2010 award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, the jailed intellectual and democracy activist.

Beijing's strategy to maintain and strengthen its control over Tibet, and delegitimize its leadership, is clear. Much less clear is whether or how the U.S. will respond. In looking towards the future, Washington and other capitals should consider the Dalai Lama's extensive plans for the Tibetan leadership after his death.

With regard to his own religious position, he rejects a Chinese Communist Party role in determining his successor. He has said that the next Dalai Lama could be found outside Tibet because the incarnation carries on the work of his predecessor, in this case, freedom in Tibet. He has also outlined some alternatives under which other religious figures might play leading roles.

Acknowledging the Dalai Lama's authority in this matter would be consistent with the U.S. position in support of Tibet's "unique religious and cultural" traditions.  Inside Tibet, knowledge that the U.S. had taken this position could have a calming effect on unrest in the wake of any Chinese effort to subvert the institution of the Dalai Lama.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for a shift in U.S. policy is the impact it could have on China's political development. Many argue that nothing will change in Chinese policy on Tibet until China itself liberalizes. Indeed, in an essay written before he was imprisoned on subversion charges, Liu identified the conflict between China and Tibet as "between dictatorship and freedom."  He and other Chinese dissidents favor different Chinese policies  on Tibet. Teng Biao, a Chinese lawyer has said that meetings between foreign leaders and the Dalai Lama are good for the Chinese as well as for Tibetans.

Democracy and human rights

Washington's position acknowledging China's sovereignty over Tibet does not preclude greater emphasis on democracy. The U.S. acknowledges that both Taiwan and Hong Kong are part of China, but supports democracy in both places as a human right which is also in the interests of the U.S. In Taiwan, the U.S. maintains unofficial but productive relations with the authorities there. As Taiwan democratized, U.S. policy was revised so that it now considers the consent of Taiwan's people to a merger with China non-negotiable.

There are obvious dissimilarities between Taiwan and Tibet, but the right to self-determination is one thing they share. The Tibetan authorities-in-exile, which has limited jurisdiction over the affairs of Tibetan exiles in India, has already been democratized -- the Dalai Lama has transferred his political powers to an elected leader, Lobsang Sangay.

When Obama recently announced a historic shift in U.S. policy on Cuba, he justified it by saying that 50 years of the same policy was not working. The same could be said of U.S. policy towards Tibet. With Chinese dissidents pushing for a change in the way Tibet is governed, and in how foreign countries treat the Dalai Lama, it makes sense to start thinking about how developments in Washington, and other Western capitals, might help assist reform inside both Tibet and China.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More