No time for Dalai Lama

No time for Dalai Lama

In nearly nine months in office, US President Barack Obama has found time to meet Hugo Chavez, Daniel Ortega and Vladimir Putin. But this week, he’ll have no time to see the Dalai Lama, a peaceful religious leader who has for decades been a friend to the US and an advocate of human rights for China’s six million Tibetans.

Obama’s slight is the first time a sitting president will not meet the Dalai Lama during a Washington visit since president George H.W. Bush met him in 1991. No meeting was ever formally on the agenda for this week, but the exiled Tibetan leader’s trip to Washington had been planned for years, and earlier this year he had expressed his hope to meet the president. Last month, White House aide Valerie Jarrett and Maria Otero, undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs, travelled to Dharamsala to confer with the Dalai Lama. The next day, the Dalai Lama’s office announced that he hoped to meet Obama after November, when Obama would visit Beijing.

As a White House official said: “Both the Dalai Lama and we agree that a stable and positive US-China relationship will help advance progress on the Tibet issue, and that a meeting after the president’s trip would further the likelihood of making progress on Tibetan issues." In other words, not offending Chinese President Hu Jintao is a higher US priority, at least on Tibet. By contrast, Obama was more than willing to risk offending China by imposing tariffs on Chinese tyres last month to please his union supporters.

This is of a piece with Obama’s other human rights backsteps, in particular his muted support for democracy in Iran. The Dalai Lama has met the sitting US president a dozen times, as well as members of Congress from both sides of the aisle (including a certain Senator Obama in 2005). Although Beijing complained about these meetings, there were no serious costs to the US-China relationship. George W. Bush met the Dalai Lama in May of his first year in office, in advance of his first trip to China, and thereafter made clear that meetings with him were nonnegotiable.

These meetings are important because they affirm the religious and democratic freedoms the US stands for, while setting a precedent for the rest of the world. China routinely assails countries whose leaders meet the Dalai Lama, targeting France and Germany in recent years by cutting off diplomatic exchanges, cancelling conferences and the like. Perhaps the administration is hoping for a return favour from Beijing for snubbing the man Chinese leaders label a “splittist" and a “wolf in sheep’s clothing". But rewarding China’s bullying only encourages such tactics.

On Wednesday in Washington, the Dalai Lama will honour the late Julia Taft, who spoke out against Chinese abuses in Tibet as coordinator on Tibetan issues in the Clinton administration. He’ll also meet House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and perhaps he can wave at the White House on his way to Capitol Hill. It’s becoming clear that Obama’s definition of “engagement" leaves plenty of room to meet dictators, but less for the men and women who challenge them.


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