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Reading the tea leaves on President Obama's Tibet statement in Beijing

November 22, 2009

Bhuchung Tsering
Tibet Report's Blog
November 19, 2009

Now that President Barack Obama has ended his
maiden East Asia visit, it is time to start
reading the tea leaves concerning his reference
to Tibet during the joint press appearance/press
conference in Beijing on November 17.

First of all, here is what the President said
publicly as can be seen from the media video
footage below. I am yet to see the transcript on the White House website.

"I spoke to President Hu about America’s bedrock
beliefs that all men and women possess certain
fundamental human rights. We do not believe that
these principles are unique to America but rather
they are universal rights and that they should be
available to all peoples, to all ethnic and
religious minorities. We did note that while we
recognise that Tibet is part of the People’s
Republic of China the United States supports the
early resumption of dialogue between the Chinese
government and the representatives of the Dalai
Lama to resolve any concerns and differences that the two sides may have.”

If you read this in conjunction with what
Ambassador Jeff Bader, White House Senior Asia
Director, said in a subsequent media briefing on
the same day, you might begin to get some flavor. Ambassador Bader said,

"They discussed Tibet. The President -- you saw
in the joint press conference, the President
referred -- the joint press conference, the
President referred explicitly to the importance
of protection of freedom of religion and the
rights of ethnic minorities, and then immediately
discussed the importance of a resumption of a
dialogue between the Dalai Lama and
representatives -- the Dalai Lama’s
representatives and the Chinese government.  That
was a deliberate and a clear statement of the
priority the President places on this, and it was
discussed privately, as well — the President
making clear his respect for the Dalai Lama as a
cultural and religious leader, and his intention
to meet with the Dalai Lama at an appropriate time."

The tea leaves show that there are three things
to note. On the positive side, President Obama
has publicly affirmed his interest in seeing not
merely a "resumption" of the dialogue between the
Tibetans and the Chinese but one that will
“resolve any concerns and differences that the two sides may have.”

Secondly, Ambassador Bader has said in another
media quote that the President spoke very
strongly on "human rights" in the private
meetings. I would assume that this would mean
Tibet figured in that, too. It could be that the
United States may have offered initiatives that
could encourage the Chinese to move forward in
the dialogue process with H.H. the Dalai Lama’s envoys.

Thirdly, the United States has made clear its
position on the President meeting His Holiness
saying he had made it clear (to the Chinese I
assume) "his intention to meet with the Dalai
Lama at an appropriate time.” This is important
because of the negative perception that a
non-meeting in October between the two created in the public and the media.

I look at the Beijing statement as the beginning
of the process on the US approach to Tibet. Now
the challenge for the Obama Administration is to
see what approach it intends to take to back its
“support” for the Tibetan-Chinese dialogue
process. The statement in Beijing could be and
should be the tip of the iceberg of a new
strategy. It is also a challenge to the Tibet
Movement in the United States to make the Administration to follow up on this.

The tea leaves also show one negative point in
the Tibet reference. The negative is not just
because President Obama said, "we recognise that
Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China”
as loosely this is more or less the position of
the United States Government.  It is negative
because of the perception it has created and the
way the Chinese have taken advantage of this in
strengthening its political strategy on Tibet.
Even Xinhua quoted it spreading it far and wide
to say as if this is a new position of the United
States (to be fair to Xinhua, it did also report
on the President calling for the resumption of
dialogue part). Many people ask what need was
there for our President to offer it unilaterally in Beijing?
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