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Obama plays China’s game with Dalai Lama breakfast display

February 9, 2015

Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2015 - At this year’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. on Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama pressed his hands together and bowed in the direction of the Dalai Lama, calling the Tibetan religious leader a “good friend” and a “powerful example of what it means to practice compassion.”

The Dalai Lama put his own hands together, bowed and flashed Mr. Obama a peace sign.

At no time did the two men talk face to face.

Some might see the long-distance high-fiving between the president and the Dalai Lama as the White House bowing to Beijing, particularly after China warned about dire diplomatic consequences were Mr. Obama and the religious leader to meet at the annual celebration of religious faith. But according to one leading Tibet scholar, the breakfast interaction illustrated a smart new turn in U.S. diplomacy with China.

“I think this shows the Americans are learning gradually and successfully how to play the Chinese back in their own manner of doing politics,” said Robbie Barnett, an expert on modern Tibet at Columbia University.

In particular, Mr. Barnett said, Mr. Obama’s non-meeting with the Dalai Lama demonstrated a grasp of the symbolic politics favored by Beijing but usually dismissed out of hand by Western governments. By conceding on not actually having a discussion with the religious leader, the White House appears to be respecting Beijing’s demands, he explained.

“Meanwhile, you can’t get away from the television image of the president with his hands clapped together bowing his head toward the Dalai Lama,” he said. “That’s a very strong message. It doesn’t look like a climb-down.”

Although they have met privately in the past, Thursday’s event marked the first time Mr. Obama had been seen in public with the Dalai Lama. It was also the first time a U.S. president appeared in public with the spiritual leader since 2007, when George W. Bush presented him with a Congressional Gold Medal despite furious protests from Beijing.

China has consistently complained about leaders of foreign nations meeting with the Dalai Lama, saying the exiled figure advocates Tibet’s independence from China. Such meetings, it says, constitute interference in China’s internal affairs.

The Dalai Lama, for his part, has said repeatedly that he doesn’t want independence for Tibet, but rather more autonomy.

The White House had announced the Dalai Lama’s invitation to the breakfast on Jan. 30. On Wednesday, in one of several sharply worded state media commentaries published ahead of the event, China’s official Xinhua news agency warned that Mr. Obama was “playing with fire” by “chumming with a secessionist” and suggested that a meeting between the two would compromise recent improvements in the U.S.-China relationship.

Reacting to the prayer breakfast on Friday, China’s foreign ministry was more reserved, saying that Tibet-related issues touched on the country’s core interests and national feelings. “We are against foreign countries receiving the Dalai Lama for visits, and we are against foreign countries’ interference in China’s domestic affairs under the pretext of Tibet-related issues,” ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular press briefing. “The Dalai Lama is seeking support from foreign countries to realize his political aims. Well, he cannot succeed.”

China’s demand that foreign leaders not receive the Dalai Lama’s visits is a less tenable escalation of earlier protests against such meetings, which suggests the White House’s strategy has succeeded in putting China on its back foot, according to Mr. Barnett.

“You can see the Chinese have had to rapidly move the goal posts,” he said. “It makes it quite hard for China to really maintain its reasoning for an aggressive line on this issue.”

Appearing to concede to China while still delivering a strong message of support for the Dalai Lama was a strategy other Western countries would do well to study, the scholar said, adding that he didn’t expect the prayer breakfast encounter to have a negative impact on relations between Beijing and Washington.

China has regularly signaled its pleasure at the generally positive turn in U.S.-China relations, he said, “and then they have the reality that they would really be exposing themselves to criticism, if not ridicule, if they criticized the Americans for an event where the two leaders don’t even actually speak together.”

– Josh Chin, with contributions from Richard Silk

 

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