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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Speaking too softly

February 16, 2010

Relations between America and China may chill
over a meeting with the Dalai Lama
The Economist
February 15, 2010

IT IS bound to be a controversial meeting. The
Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, goes to
Washington, DC, this week and will sit down with
President Barack Obama for the first time on
Thursday February 18th. American presidents have
long been happy to meet the Tibetan leader and to
tolerate subsequent angry huffing from China, not
least as a means of responding to public concern
over human rights without doing anything serious
to jeopardise trade or other ties with Beijing.

But in Mr Obama’s case, with China increasingly
assertive internationally and the American
president perceived in many quarters as cautious,
even timid, in foreign policy, the encounter with
the Dalai Lama has assumed extra significance. Mr
Obama will be studied closely. Human-rights
activists will listen with care to the language
that the American president uses, straining to
hear whether he goes further than merely
suggesting more dialogue between Tibetans and the
Chinese leadership. Might the president dare to
deliver real criticism of repression and human-rights abuses in Tibet?

Kenneth Roth, the head of Human Rights Watch, an
activist group in New York, offers a mixed
assessment of Mr Obama’s foreign policy so far in
its treatment of human rights. He suggests that
no other recent American leader has taken such
care with his rhetoric, judging how it is
received by the rest of the world. But
substantial steps too rarely follow Mr Obama's
fine words. The president’s speeches -- as in
Cairo last year -- have helped to set a
conciliatory tone for American foreign policy,
and to reassure Muslims and others that America
is not determined to seek confrontation for the
sake of it. Thoughtful comments to African
leaders, urging the continent to develop strong
and democratic institutions, have also been well
received. But Mr Roth sees little evidence of a
leader who is prepared then to press reluctant
regimes, as for example did Ronald Reagan (and
before him, Jimmy Carter) in pushing the Soviet
Union to sign up to an international commitment,
the Helsinki Final Act, which promoted individual rights.

Mr Obama’s foreign-policy approach of seeking
engagement with opponents such as Iran, in an
effort to establish dialogue and more effective
diplomatic channels, has made it harder for him
to beat the human-rights drum loudly. But by
failing to speak up about repression, the
American leader risks being perceived as weak.
His muted reaction to the rigged presidential
elections in Iran and the violent repression that
followed (and continues) has seemed deferential.
His eagerness to "reset" relations with Russia,
for example by scrapping a planned anti-missile
defence shield in eastern Europe, has coincided
with near total silence over the murders of
journalists and the clamping down on democracy in
that country. It is unclear, in either case, that
biting his tongue has brought any gains from the respective regimes.

Particularly troubling has been America's
attitude to China and human rights. After Hillary
Clinton’s first visit to China as secretary of
state, in February 2009, she announced that
concern over human rights should not “interfere”
with getting co-operation on other issues such as
climate change and the global economy.
Human-rights defenders were deflated. Mr Obama
then avoided meeting the Dalai Lama when he
visited America in September and postponed a
scheduled meeting in October, to avoid upsetting
the government in China ahead of a presidential
visit. During Mr Obama’s subsequent visit to
China, he made few and limited comments on human
rights. The Chinese government responded by
becoming more assertive. It helped to scupper a
deal at the Copenhagen summit on climate change
in December and snubbed the American president by
sending a deputy minister to a crucial meeting.
China has generally proven to be increasingly
unwilling to co-operate with America, for example
over United Nations sanctions against Iran.

The administration, however, may now be
toughening up. American rhetoric over Iran has
become firmer. On Monday Mrs Clinton warned that
a military dictatorship was emerging in Tehran.
Relations with China, too, have become frostier,
for example over a long-planned (and routine)
decision by the American government to sell
weapons to Taiwan. Mrs Clinton has also spoken up
more forcefully about the need for internet
freedom in China, in the wake of sophisticated
cyber-attacks on Google that many believe had
Chinese government fingerprints on them. This
week’s meeting with the Dalai Lama is thus a
moment to demonstrate that Mr Obama is ready both
to signal his concern for human rights and that
his foreign-policy is becoming more assertive.
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