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Interview: U.S.-China: Dalai Lama Drama

February 18, 2010

Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)
February 17, 2010

Interviewee: Robert J. Barnett, Director of the
Modern Tibetan Studies Program, Columbia University

Interviewer: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor

Robert Barnett President Barack Obama's scheduled
meeting with the Dalai Lama this week drew harsh
criticism from China, as did news of a $6 billion
U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. The meeting occurs at a
time when China is both more confident on the
global stage and more concerned about a restive
Tibet and other domestic issues, says Tibet
expert Robert Barnett of Columbia University.
"Both sides will want to avoid any serious
rupture," says Barnett, but a better
understanding of each other's positions would help.

CFR: All American presidents since 1990 have met
with the Dalai Lama, yet President Obama's
scheduled meeting Thursday has drawn a sharp
warning from China that the visit will undermine
U.S.-China relations. Is China more irritated
about this visit than it has been previously?

Barnett: There is certainly a higher level of
angry rhetoric from Beijing. There was even a
possible threat (People'sDaily) on February 3,
when Zhu Weiqun, a party official at
vice-ministerial level, said that a U.S. meeting
with the Dalai Lama "would be both irrational and
harmful, [and] if a country decides to do so, we
will take necessary measures to help them realize this."

But in fact, behind the scenes, Beijing was far
more disturbed by the previous presidential
meeting, President George W. Bush's presentation
of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama
in October 2007--because that was the first and
only time a U.S. president and the Tibetan leader had met in public.

So for Chinese diplomats, the real objective for
the last six months or so has been not to stop
the meeting, which their experts knew was
impossible, but to get it to be private. That's
been achieved, because the meeting will take
place in a private room, the White House Map
Room. But that's an obscure issue of protocol
that, as the White House knows, makes a lot of
difference to Beijing officials but none to
American or Tibetan perceptions of the meeting.
For China, the symbolic details matter, but for
Tibetans in Tibet, it's only whether the two people meet that is meaningful.

But there are other factors behind the angry
rhetoric. China changed its Tibet policy because
of its shock at the public meeting with President
Bush in 2007. It upgraded Tibet to a "core
interest" and began much more aggressive efforts
to stop foreign meetings with the Dalai Lama.

Its "fire-breathing" strategy has been a major
success: Since that campaign began, the leaders
of Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and the pope
have refused to meet the Dalai Lama; Britain
publicly renounced its recognition of Tibet as
autonomous in the past; and France found itself
forced to declare in writing its "opposition to
support for Tibet's independence in any form
whatsoever." Last year, only two national leaders
met the Dalai Lama--the prime ministers of the
Czech Republic and of Denmark (the Danes later
found themselves compelled [to release] a public
statement "opposing Tibetan
independence")--compared to twenty-one in the previous four years.

CFR: What domestic issues in China are affecting
its relationship with the U.S. and the West?

Barnett: [China's]"fire-breathing" strategy has
been a major success: The leaders of Australia,
New Zealand, Germany, and the pope have refused
to meet the Dalai Lama since it began, and
Britain, France, and Denmark have signed
humiliating declarations on the Tibet issue.

The rise in confidence and importance in China
are genuine, substantial changes, reflecting its
growth in economic and political significance,
and magnified by its success in having avoided
the Western-made blunders of the Iraq War and the
financial crisis. But quite major changes seem to
have taken place beneath the surface within
China, partly byproducts of domestic
over-assertion in the run-up to the Olympics. At
the same time as national confidence soared in
the eastern and urban areas of China, the western
areas, where Tibetans and Uighurs live--about one
half of China's landmass--seemed to drift further
away, with major protests in the last two years,
some of them more widespread and violent than in decades.

In the rural areas of China proper, the state
faces thousands of demonstrations each year from
farmers whose land has been appropriated by
developers or poisoned by industrial pollution.
It's becoming harder for the state to create
sufficient work opportunities and maintain growth
without crippling the environment. Water supply
is expected to become critical, and huge symbolic
and actual capital is spent on policing the
Internet and suppressing dissent. China can
continue to manage these strains, constantly
offsetting economic expansion with political
conservatism, but it has a relatively weak
consensus leadership that cannot afford to take
risks, so its room for maneuver in its U.S. relations is limited.

CFR: Obama cancelled a meeting with the Dalai
Lama in October. Did he do that to placate China?
Did he put it back on the agenda to show a tougher face?

Barnett: In fact, the president didn't cancel a
meeting with the Dalai Lama; he postponed it.
This was a new and interesting strategy, where a
meeting is delayed to placate China temporarily
while telling them clearly, as Obama did while in
Beijing last year, that the meeting would still
take place. This approach before seemed initially
promising, responsive to Chinese sensitivities
without conceding on American commitments.

Unfortunately for the president, the message
misfired domestically because of the perception
that the White House had secretly pressured the
Dalai Lama to withdraw his request for a meeting.
But the meeting was always going to take place.
And many people, including the Chinese, were
expecting this administration to be somewhat
tougher with Beijing in its second or third year.
The administration may have calculated that an
initial year of conciliation would earn it enough
credit to push through difficult but long-planned
agenda items, such as arms sales and anti-dumping
measures, which is what we're seeing now.

What's unexpected is that suddenly international
attitudes to Beijing have changed because of the
Google shift, plus negative reports such as those
about China's role at Copenhagen. Still, trade
issues and Taiwan commitments would probably have
pushed Washington toward a more resilient policy posture anyway.

CFR: China condemned the recent announcement of
$6 billion in arms sales to Taiwan, threatening
commercial sanctions on the U.S. firms involved.
Yet the U.S. has continued to sell arms to Taiwan
since diplomatic ties with China were established
in 1972. Why the intense response?

Barnett: As national confidence soared in the
eastern and urban areas of China, the western
areas, where Tibetans and Uighurs live--about one
half of China's landmass--seemed to drift further
away, with major protests in the last two years.

The American side argues that Beijing is being
unreasonable, because Washington sees these
weapons as purely defensive, since it did not
include so far the F16s that Taiwan asked for.
And a well-defended Taiwan, the U.S. maintains,
will feel more secure and so will be more willing
to make concessions in its ongoing dialogue with China.

Beijing sees the weapons, which include
helicopters, as multipurpose and so usable in
attacks. Anyway, it has to react to arms sales to
Taiwan, especially at a time when the two sides
are seeing major improvements in diplomacy.
China's new profile as a major regional or even
global power requires it to assert its claims to
dominance within its sphere of influence.  Both
sides understand that and don't see this as
necessarily contentious or difficult in
itself--they know that the response to the arms
sales is intended as a warning that any agreement
to sell F16s would be seen by Beijing as
extremely serious. But we are likely to see
increasing tensions over shipping lanes and
resource exploitation if, as seems inevitable,
China pushes its claims for sovereignty rights
over much of the South China Sea.

In addition to its rhetoric on Tibet and Taiwan,
China has been antagonistic in other ways too.
Beijing sent a junior official to negotiate with
Obama in Copenhagen, sentenced a mentally ill
British drug dealer to death over British
objections, and opposes the Security Council on
stronger sanctions for Iran. Why?

Both sides appear antagonistic to the other, but
not to themselves. Almost all these issues seem
reasonable in context to Chinese officials, and
Western anger at them appears provocative or
opportunistic. For example, China now says that
its own computers are being attacked by
high-class hackers, that supporting the Taiwanese
and the Tibetans is only explicable as a plot to
damage China, and that American trade demands are
self-serving given its record on [the global
round of talks launched at] Doha and other
initiatives. It's going to take very good
communicators to unravel these radical differences between the two nations.

There are exceptions to this, which probably seem
excessive to many Chinese as well, most notably
the increasingly frequent instances of legal
abuse, such as the cases of the missing lawyer
Gao Zhisheng; the literary critic and activist
Liu Xiaobo, [who was] given an eleven-year
sentence last year for writing a democracy
petition; or the Tibetan environmentalist and
blogger Kunchok Tsephel, given fifteen years
apparently for writing about protests on his
blog. The rationale for these persecutions is
hopelessly out of date even for China, as well as counterproductive.

But there is also an underlying structural
problem: As China becomes larger and wealthier,
its energy and political needs force it to look
beyond its own shores and its inland borders,
where it will clash increasingly with America's
continuing role as a global policeman, as well as
with powerful and important neighbors like Japan,
Korea, and India. It's going to be important for
all sides to develop efficient, restrained,
clear-thinking channels for dialogue and
diplomacy as we move into a new phase in international relations.

CFR: Should the Obama administration stake a
stronger stand with China on human rights and trade issues?

Barnett: International perceptions of China have
just shifted. It's as if there's been a sudden
decision around the world that some of China's
more combative postures might be bluff. So the
West's financial dependency on Beijing is now
seen as less acute than some had assumed two
months ago, a realization that in the future will
presumably be known as a "Google moment." The
Obama administration now finds it has more space
to operate in, and it will be unlikely to repeat
the missteps in protocol and presentation that
marked last year's dealings with Beijing and
Tibet. The meeting with the Dalai Lama, high
profile but largely symbolic, gives Washington a
low-cost opportunity to signal a more confident but still measured approach.

Whether this will last, let alone be effective,
depends on China's response to the current swath
of problems in Sino-U.S. relations. Both sides
will want to avoid any serious rupture in
relations, which is of paramount important to
their needs to work together on climate change,
the financial crisis, and other issues. If China
really decides to punish the United States over
trade, debt, Iran, North Korea, Taiwan, extending
its maritime zone, or any other issue, America
would again face major dilemmas since it's much
more susceptible to private lobby and interest pressures than Beijing.

Overall, as we are told by fortune cookies,
individual character and resolve will be
important: America cannot afford to remain silent
about abuses of civil rights in China. But
Beijing has already sent an important signal by
saying last week that it will allow a U.S.
aircraft carrier to visit Hong Kong in the "near
future." So it is likely that behind the scenes
both sides are looking to find ways to live with their differences.
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