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Obama's Dalai Lama snub sends wrong signal

November 22, 2009

Manik Mehta
Taiwan Today
November 20, 2009

What a delicious irony. While the Dalai Lama was
being honored in Washington last month with the
inaugural Lantos Human Rights Prize for his
efforts to end global injustice, U.S. President
Barack Obama was putting off a meeting with the
Tibetan spiritual leader until after his visit to mainland China.

Obama’s decision to pass on face time with the
Dalai Lama marks a departure from the near
two-decade-old tradition of past U.S. presidents in receiving the Dalai Lama.

House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi,
who described the Dalai Lama as one of the most
highly honored peacemakers of our time, praised
his efforts to persuade Beijing to improve its
human rights record. “Unless we speak out for
human rights in [mainland] China and in Tibet, we
lose all moral authority to talk about human rights anywhere in the world."

Pelosi’s position contrasts sharply with Obama’s
Dalai Lama decision. Before leaving for mainland
China, Obama was criticized by both Democrats and
Republicans who are appalled by the situation in
Tibet and feel the president is kowtowing to
Beijing and turning a blind eye to human rights
violations in Tibet by the mainland communist regime.

Obama’s decision to put off his meeting with the
Dalai Lama sends the wrong message to Beijing,
for whom the postponement is a sign of U.S.
weakness. Beijing could now be emboldened to
dictate its position on other issues as well --
if it is not doing so already -- such as its
treatment of Uighurs since June’s deadly ethnic
rioting in the Xinjiang region, and U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan.

On the issue of Taiwan, which is a touchstone of
U.S.-mainland China relations, Washington could
face a similarly belligerent Beijing. While it is
understandable that Washington does not want an
escalation of tensions in the Taiwan Strait, it
must also send a strong message to the mainland
that it will not tolerate any aggressive posturing on Taiwan.

Thus, Obama’s refusal to meet the Dalai Lama
before his mainland China visit has set a
dangerous precedent that can hurt U.S. global
interests and create uncertainties among American
allies in Asia. The mainland, which already
fancies itself as the only power in the world
capable of challenging the United States in
today’s unipolar world, could be under the
impression that Washington is unwilling to
respond to any distress call from Taiwan in the future.

Even though Obama has appointed Under Secretary
of State for Democracy and Global Affairs Maria
Otero as his special coordinator on Tibet, the
move serves little use if the president himself
decides not to receive the Dalai Lama out of fear
of offending mainland China. To many, it appears
that the rulers in Beijing are virtually telling
the leader of the world’s most powerful nation
whom he should or should not meet.

Appeasement is not synonymous with "engaging"
mainland China. Obama could take a cue from
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s response
to Beijing’s illogical protest over the Dalai
Lama’s travels within India. Singh told Wen
Jiabao, the mainland’s second-highest ranking
official, on the sidelines of the Association for
Southeast Asian Nations summit in Thailand last
month that the Dalai Lama was an “honored guest”
of India and free to travel wherever he liked in India.

Beijing even went so far as to try and stop the
Dalai Lama’s visit this month to Arunachal
Pradesh, a northeastern Indian state—parts of
which are claimed by mainland China. India
considers Arunachal Pradesh an integral part of its territory.

Despite U.S. State Department spokesman Ian
Kelly’s insistence that there has been no policy
shift on Tibet, the Obama administration’s
attitude creates the impression that it is
becoming “subservient” to the mainland in return
for favors on a number of global issues.

Obviously, Washington needs Beijing’s cooperation
on a host of thorny issues ranging from global
warming and international finance to reining in
North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. However, Obama’s
“soft approach” risks sending the wrong message
to tyrants in other regions as well.

Although Obama has been a breath of fresh air in
the White House with his charisma, humility and
personal philosophy of life, it would be a
strategic mistake to use this approach with
regimes that frequently resort to violence to
snuff out even the slightest peaceful opposition
and seek to eliminate ethnic minorities.

Tibet is facing what critics decry as "cultural
genocide" systematically practiced by mainland
China. Tibet received some 4.75 million tourists
from January to September, but the bulk of these
tourists comprised Han Chinese, whose population
in Tibet now exceeds that of the ethnic Tibetans.
More than 1.2 million Tibetans have lost their
lives opposing the rule of mainland China since
the latter seized Tibet in 1950 and forced the
Dalai Lama to escape to India in 1959.

Supporters of Tibet, whose ranks are swelling not
only in the U.S. but also in other parts of the
world, will be closely watching Obama’s treatment
of the Dalai Lama, now that his official visit to mainland China is over.

* Manik Mehta is a free-lance writer based in New York.
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