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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Fixing Obama's Tibet Bungle

February 21, 2010

Accommodating China hasn't helped the U.S.
Meeting the Dalai Lama is a chance to start over.
The Wall Street Journal
February 16,

This week's meeting between President Barack
Obama and the Dalai Lama is generating an
unusually vocal uproar from Beijing. That uproar,
for those who listen carefully, is a sign that
Mr. Obama's policies on Tibet and China are not
working. The question is whether Mr. Obama will realize in time to fix it.

Once the timing of Mr. Obama's meeting with the
Dalai Lama became public, Chinese officials
threatened to "take corresponding action to make
relevant countries see their mistakes." The Obama
White House has responded with a confused mixed
message: confirming the meeting while trying to
reassure Beijing with talk about the larger
context of the "mature" U.S.-China relationship.

This contretemps is largely Mr. Obama's own
fault. By the time he took office, presidential
meetings with the Dalai Lama had become routine
to the point where Chinese diplomats seemed to be
phoning in their demarches. Mr. Obama could have
continued that pattern had he chosen to. Instead,
he has turned what would have been a one-day,
back-of-the-newspaper blurb about a routine
meeting with the Dalai Lama into a major diplomatic and domestic headache.

It wasn't supposed to turn out like this. Mr.
Obama's decision not to meet with the Tibetan
leader before traveling to Beijing last November
was intended to smooth the path toward Chinese
cooperation on several issues dear to the
President at home: climate change negotiations,
yuan revaluation, and trade measures to placate
key labor union constituencies. The domestic
political connection was clear from the fact that
once Mr. Obama decided not to meet the Dalai
Lama, he dispatched long-time political aide
Valerie Jarrett, not known as a foreign-policy
expert, to India to deliver the bad news.

But instead of securing Chinese cooperation, Mr.
Obama has signaled that Tibet and the Dalai Lama
are political fair game in U.S.-China relations.
Beijing has always objected to these meetings,
but now believes it has a genuine chance to stop
them. Mr. Obama's gratuitous reference to U.S.
recognition of Chinese control over Tibet during
a joint press conference with Chinese President
Hu Jintao in November compounded the error by
undermining his call for dialogue.

This commoditization of Tibet, and other human
rights issues for that matter, has actually
reduced Mr. Obama's leverage over Beijing because
it shows he's willing to compromise long-term
principles for short-term gains. These
self-inflicted wounds were a direct consequence
of President Obama's reliance on two mutually
reinforcing channels for advice on Tibet and
China: a claque of "China experts" who believed
excessive deference to Chinese sensitivities on
issues such as Tibet is the key to better
U.S.-China relations; and a political team with
zero China experience who saw better relations
with China as key to achieving certain domestic political objectives.

The Obama team came into office assuming that the
George W. Bush administration's approach on
everything, including Tibet, was wrong and that
they should do the opposite. Part of their China
and Tibet problem has been in misunderstanding
what precisely they are reacting against. The
robust Tibet policy of the early Bush years fell
victim in later years to a much more "realistic"
approach that was inclined to accommodate Beijing
in hopes of making progress on key aspects of the relationship.

Rather than reversing that second-term policy
trajectory, Mr. Obama's team has operated on the
conviction that Mr. Bush was not accommodating
enough of China on Tibet. In sharp contrast to
President Bush's heavy emphasis on his personal
relationship with the Dalai Lama when talking to
Chinese leaders about Tibet—which signaled to
Beijing that they couldn't just make the issue go
away—Mr. Obama's Asia policy advisors claimed
that not meeting the Dalai Lama prior to his
November trip to China would somehow render Mr.
Obama a more effective advocate on behalf of
Tibet. He also would be better able to secure
Beijing's cooperation on a raft of "more important" issues.

It is clear now that this hasn't worked. China
sabotaged a climate deal at the Copenhagen summit
in December; has yet to take helpful action on
the currency; and recently proposed tariffs on
U.S. poultry in retaliation for Mr. Obama's own
protectionism. Meanwhile Mr. Obama has lost leverage on Tibet itself.

Mr. Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama may be an
attempt to change course. But it is equally
possible this is just another example of
posturing for either domestic or Chinese
consumption. If this week's meeting is such a
political gesture, it will be a huge missed opportunity.

President Obama should use this meeting to start
a serious course correction. America's commitment
to freedom and human rights is its real
comparative advantage vis a vis China, and a
China policy firmly rooted in core American
values is not only the most morally satisfying
approach but also potentially the most effective.
If President Obama can start by taking a more
consistent and principled approach on Tibet, he
could yet recover his footing on China.

Ms. Currie is a senior fellow with the Project
2049 Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
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