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Obama and the Dalai Lama -- more empty words and confusion over Tibet

February 5, 2010

This exchange will achieve nothing for the Tibetans.
Sholto Byrnes, Contributing Editor
New Statesman (UK)
February 4, 2010

Perhaps it is one area where President Obama
feels he can afford to act tough, but news that
he will meet the Dalai Lama despite Chinese
protests is hardly going to do anything to
improve relations already strained over US
weapons sales to Taiwan, which mainland China claims as its own..

Frankly, this seems to me to be the kind of empty
posturing, frequently displayed in relation to
the Burmese junta, which salves the consciences
of the participants and makes no difference
whatsoever to the people with whose plight we
claim to be so concerned. To the Americans, this
may simply be a meeting with the one religious
leader in the world who, curiously, never seems
to be subject to any kind of scrutiny - a "living
saint", as I have observed here before.

But given that this exchange will achieve
precisely nothing in terms of ameliorating the
lot of Tibetans (an outcome on which I would be
prepared to bet a tidy sum), one can't help
wondering what the point is of deliberately
irritating China in this way. For that it will
annoy Beijing is the one thing that is not in
doubt, and history gives them good reason to
resent foreign interference. Isabel Hilton wrote
recently in the NS about the tensions between
India and China over the Indian state of
Arunachal Pradesh, which China considers to be
part of Tibet and thus their territory too.

And where do we find the origin of that
particular carve up of territory? In the Simla
Accord of 1914, another treaty imposed by a
Western power and which resulted in the McMahon
line that divides the two neighbouring countries.
A warning light should flash up whenever you hear
of one of these lines, like the Durand line that
marks the boundary between Pakistan and
Afghanistan, or the Sykes-Picot line that ran
through the former Ottoman Empire after the First
World War - all instances of Western powers
creating borders that suited their purposes but
which failed to take account of local histories and allegiances.

A warm stance towards the Dalai Lama always plays
well, but it is undermined by Britain's
abandonment last year of the principle that China
was the suzerain, but not the sovereign, power
over Tibet. David Miliband dismissed the
distinction as "anachronistic", but it is one
that has had wide and important consequences in
the region. Thailand, for instance, only managed
to resist European colonisation in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries by ceding territories
over which it had suzerainty - what are now the
four northern states of Malaysia to the British
in 1909, and Laos to the French in 1893 and 1907
- while retaining independence for the Siamese heartland.

The distinction enshrined in the Simla accord,
that China had overlord but not sovereign status,
was important for Tibet. As Steve Tsang of St
Anthony's College, Oxford, points out: ''Britain
has officially accepted what it had acknowledged
earlier; but China will use this."

So we have aggressive posturing, ignorance of
history, and friendly words that are contradicted
by our actions. One could shrug one's shoulders
and say that this is all in the grand tradition
of utterly confused Western foreign policy. But
surely we realise by now that how we treat China
is going to have long and momentous repercussions in this century?
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