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US Downplays Obama's Meeting with Dalai Lama as Part of Chess Game with the Chinese

February 22nd 2010

Obama Admin Topics - Dalai Lama at White House
Dalai Lama Exits White House Among Garbage Bags

The unceremonious departure of the Dalai Lama from the White House on February 19 gained almost as much currency as the actual meeting between the Tibetan Buddhist leader and President Barack Obama. While leaving the Executive Mansion, the Dalai Lama was captured on film exiting through a door usually used by household staff where the West Wing meets the main presidential residence. The saffron-robed monk, a recipient of the Nobel Prize and revered icon for Buddhists and lovers of liberty was seen walking around trash bags in his sandals in chilly Washington DC.

The photo promptly went all over the world, sparking criticism and bewilderment. For its part, the White House released only one photo of the actual meeting between the two leaders, showing them in conversation.

China, which has occupied the mountainous nation of Tibet since the 1950s, duly registered its diplomatic pique over the visit. The American ambassador in Beijing was summoned for a consultation with the Chinese foreign ministry in protest. A Chinese spokesman averred that the Tibetan spiritual leader’s visit with Obama had “seriously harmed” Sino-American relations. The Chinese registered its “solemn representation” to the U.S. diplomat that international relations had been damaged because of Obama’s refusal to heed Chinese warnings. “We believe the actions of the U.S. side have seriously interfered in Chinese internal affairs, seriously hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, and seriously undermined China-U.S. relations,” said the Chinese spokesman.

While the Tibetan religious leader has met American presidents privately since 1991, this was the first time that he was invited on an official visit. White House sources were quick to point out that the Dalai Lama was not received as a political leader. Observers noted that the meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama took place in the White House Map Room, rather than the Oval Office—a sign of closer favor. According to the White House official statement following the visits, “The President stated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China.” The Dalai Lama also met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and received a medal from the National Endowment of Democracy.

The White House went forward with the meeting even while calculating it that meant angering the Chinese. “I don’t think this has come as a surprise, no,” said U.S. Ambassador Jon Hunstman. “The president had expressed his concerns for human rights in Tibet and his admiration for the Dalai Lama as an international religious figure. I can’t say what would appease the Chinese on this meeting, but of course we had told the Chinese months in advance and in fact when President Obama was here in November he did mention he intended to meet with the Dalai Lama when he had his meeting with President Hu Jintao.”

In an open letter, Arjia Rinpoche—Director of the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center and one of the most respected Tibetan Buddhist leaders in exile—wrote “The visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and President Barack Obama has far more far reaching significance than many commentators are giving credit. The President, despite Chinese objections, is showing the Dalai Lama greater respect than any president before him and is also a meeting of two very special people.” In 2009, Obama met with President Hu of China and was criticized for not meeting with the Dalai Lama first. However, Rinpoche notes the criticisms, at least two U.S. diplomatic envoys went to the exiled leader’s headquarters in India to discuss preparations for the eventual visit.

Rinpoche recounts the decades-long policy of communist China to incorporate the very Buddhist and ethnically distinct Tibetan nation into Han ethnic majority of China. This was done by introducing Chinese settlers into Tibet and introducing Chinese modernity featuring roads, militarization, electrification, and railroads. Rincpoche sees reasons for optimism, however, noting that at a January 2010 meeting of the Chinese Politiburo, President Hu indicated that China’s policy in Tibet has gone on long enough and should be softened. Moreover, Hu indicated that a distinction must be made between the official Tibetan government-in-exile and the person of the Dalai Lama who, he believes, offers a “middle way” in negotiations over the future of Tibet.

China’s protests over the visit are seen by some as routine and formulaic, despite other reasons for tension in Sino-American relations: sanctions on Iran, U.S. military sales to Taiwan, and the trade deficit between the two countries. While the Cold War made China and the United States firm enemies, more recent times show that their relations can go through cycles with agreement on some issues while disagreements continue to simmer, much like the relations between the Great Powers in 19th century Europe.

Cutting Edge Contributor Martin Barillas edits SperoForum.com


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