Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Dalai Lama's Visit

President Obama will be meeting with the Dalai Lama today, although the meeting will be kept rather low key in order to avoid offending the Chinese:

President Barack Obama plans a muted meeting with the Dalai Lama on Thursday in deference to Chinese anger that he is welcoming the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader into the White House at all.

What the Dalai Lama and Obama say to each other behind closed doors will matter less than how the White House portrays the president's symbolic meeting with the Buddhist monk considered a separatist by Beijing.

Chinese officials will be watching closely to see how great a stage Obama offers to his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The Chinese want to know: How long will the meeting last? Will the first lady attend? Will the White House put out a written statement or answer questions about the visit at daily press briefings? Will cameras be allowed to film any part of the encounter?

"The optics of this thing are incredibly important to the Chinese," said Michael Green, former President George W. Bush's senior Asia adviser. "The Chinese government is preoccupied with protocol and how things look."

China's feelings matter because the Obama administration needs Beijing's help to confront nuclear standoffs in Iran and North Korea, to fight climate change and to boost the world's economy. U.S.-Chinese relations have been strained, most recently because of the Dalai Lama's visit and the Obama administration's approval of a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Taiwan, the self-governing democratic island that Beijing claims as its own.

With China in mind, the White House appears to be opting for a low-key meeting. There is unlikely to be a joint public appearance or photo opportunity before reporters. Instead, the White House will release an official photo. The visit will take place in the Map Room, where presidents stage private meetings, not the more stately Oval Office, where Obama frequently meets with world leaders.

The Dalai Lama's envoy, Lodi Gyari, said even a private meeting with Obama is a boost for Tibetans feeling marginalized by China. Green said just the "fact that they spend time together in an intimate setting means everything for the Tibetan cause."

Although the Dalai Lama is revered in much of the world, Beijing accuses him of seeking to overthrow Chinese rule and restore a feudal theocracy in the expansive mountainous region. The Dalai Lama and analysts say that is untrue.

The Dalai Lama has met with U.S. presidents for the past two decades, but mostly in private encounters.

George W. Bush also met behind the scenes with the Dalai Lama. Bush broke with tradition in a big way, however, when he appeared at the public presentation in 2007 of a Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama, who fled his homeland to India in 1959 with members of his family and fewer than 100 other Tibetans during a failed uprising against China. Chinese troops had taken over Tibet in 1951.

It's sad that America finds itself so dependant on China that meeting with a great humanitarian must be done quietly, instead of being celebrated. Tibetan autonomy should be a cause that human rights advocates could embrace, and America could endorse in the name of "freedom". But economics and geo-politics allow China to dictate the terms of engagement; our economy is dependant on Chinese investment.
I'm actually quite glad that Obama is going ahead with the meeting, even in the face of certain repercussions. Sometimes, humanitarianism should trump diplomacy.
Oh, and here's a picture of one of my favorite 'odd couple' meetings:

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