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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."

Obama takes the 'middle way' on Tibet

September 26, 2009

Asia Times Online - Sep 26, 2009
By Saransh Sehgal

DHARAMSALA, India - United States President Barack Obama seems to be taking
a "middle way" approach in dealing with the Tibet issue. While he wants to
be sympathetic and friendly to the Dalai Lama and his cause, he by no means
wants to offend the Chinese government by getting too close to the Tibetan
spiritual leader in exile.

Or at least this can be read from the messages conveyed by some of his aides
during a recent visit here, home to the Tibetan government in exile, to meet
the Dalai Lama.

For Tibetans in exile and their supporters, a meeting of the US president
with the Dalai Lama is of great encouragement as it symbolizes the support
of the world's superpower to the Free

Tibet movement. Before Obama, all US presidents since 1991 met the Dalai
Lama when he visited the United States "informally" or "by chance". So,
Tibetans here felt greatly disappointed when Obama did not meet their
"living Buddha" during his US trip in April.

Therefore, the arrival here of the US delegation - including Valerie
Jarrett, an adviser to the president, Under Secretary of State for Democracy
and Global Affairs Maria Otero, the Obama administration's new special
coordinator for Tibetan affairs, and Michael Strautmanis, chief of staff to
Valerie Jarrett - on September 14 boosted hope that a meeting with Obama
might be arranged for the Dalai Lama during his US visit in October.

An Obama-Dalai meeting certainly would anger Beijing. Last December, Beijing
postponed the 11th China-European Union summit in protest after French
President Nicolas Sarkozy's met with the Dalai Lama in Poland. In March,
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi made it clear that China would take any
meeting with the Dalai Lama by leaders of countries with diplomatic ties
with China as an offense.

After a closed-door meeting with the US guests, the Dalai Lama issued a
statement through his office, "Ms Jarrett conveyed the president's greetings
to his holiness and informed him that she was sent to brief him about the
Obama administration's approach to the Tibetan issue." And "his holiness is
looking forward to meeting President Obama after his visit to China".

If anything, this is equivalent to saying that Obama will not meet the Dalai
Lama during the latter's current visit to the US, because the US president
is set to visit Beijing in November. It was said that Obama sent the envoy
to persuade the Dalai Lama not to visit Washington during his current US
trip. The Tibetans in exile now hope that Obama could meet the Dalai Lama
shortly after his maiden visit to Beijing, though the White House makes no
firm commitment.

Arriving in Memphis, Tennessee, on Tuesday - barely a week after he met
Obama's envoy - the Dalai Lama started his three-week North American trip.

"His Holiness the Dalai Lama left his residence for a 23-day scheduled visit
to the US and Canada," said Tenzin Taklha, the joint secretary of the Dalai
Lama's Dharamsala office.

"During his stay in the US, there is no scheduled meeting between the Dalai
Lama and President Obama. He will meet Obama sometime late, after his visit
to China in November," Taklha said, adding that "meeting President Obama
after his China visit would be more fruitful and constructive".

Jarrett said in a statement she emphasized Obama's commitment to supporting
the Tibetan people and securing their human and civil rights. She also said
Obama commended the Dalai Lama for looking for a solution based on autonomy
within China.

Obama's emissaries were obviously keen to assure the Dalai Lama that just
because the president would not meet him before his first official visit to
Beijing, it did not mean he was not concerned about the Tibet issue. The
Dalai Lama expressed the hope the Tibetans would see progress in the
resolution of their differences with China during Obama's presidency,
according to the statement.

The team also met Tibetan premier in exile Samdhong Rinpoche, the Dalai
Lama's special envoy Lodi Gyari and other influential Tibetan groups. "What
we expect is some concrete steps by the Obama administration and we hope the
United States will walk the extra mile on our behalf while dealing with
China," Tibetan Youth Congress president Tsewang Rinzin told Agence
France-Presse. "During my meeting with Jarrett, I also referenced Obama's
public address that the US will continue to fight for oppressed people,"
Rinzin said.

China reiterated its stance on the Dalai Lama. Soon after the meeting with
Obama's aides was reported, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu
said China firmly opposed any meetings between the Dalai Lama and foreign
officials in any form. China's position on the Tibet issue is clear and

"We are firmly opposed to the Dalai Lama's engagement in separatist
activities against China in any country and in any name or identity. We
oppose any force making use of this issue to interfere with China's internal
affairs. The US side is very clear about China's position on this issue,"
Jiang said when asked about a possible meeting between the US president and
the Dalai Lama.

The White House also issued a statement after the event. Mike Hammer,
spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, said that Jarrett
had conveyed Obama's "respect" for the Nobel Peace laureate who has spent 50
years in exile.

"Tibetan religion and culture have made significant contributions to the
world and the president wished Ms Jarrett through her visit to honor them,"
Hammer said. He said the Dalai Lama told the delegation of his pacifist
"middle way" approach of seeking a future for Tibet within China, which sent
troops into the Himalayan territory in 1950. "We think his views deserve our
attention and that of the Chinese government," Hammer said.

However, for Tibetan exiles, this event came more as a frustrated
disappointment as they had hoped the Obama aides went to India to schedule
an Obama-Dalai meet. But when news emerged that the meeting was delayed,
they said it was Obama playing smart politics - or maybe his own middle way
policy ahead of his visit to Beijing in November in the aftermath of the
global financial crisis.

"If Obama somehow shrugs off this meeting, it gives a very clear indication
to China that the US is bending down," said Tsering Palden, president of the
Tibetan Youth Congress activist group's branch in New York. "It really gives
the wrong signal. It says the US is not ready to stand up to China. Tibetans
have been waiting so much for this meeting, so that President Obama can take
the message of Tibetans to China," he said.

Even Samdhong Rinpoche, the prime minister of the Tibetan government in
exile, accused the United States and other Western nations of appeasing
China in regard to Tibet. "A lot of nations are adopting a policy of
appeasement," Rinpoche told a group of journalists after learning the
president would not meet the Dalai Lama in Washington.

"Even the US government is doing some kind of appeasement. Today, economic
interests are much greater than other interests," said Rinpoche. But later,
showing a softer stance, he conceded, "I understand why Obama is not meeting
the Dalai Lama before his Chinese trip. It is common sense. Obama should not
irritate the Chinese leadership. China's greatest irritation is his
holiness, wherever he goes.

"His support and sympathy is very important. Unless the Chinese leadership
has the will to resolve Tibet, outside powers can only help but cannot take
any decisive course. Tibet will always remain an internal issue of the PRC
[People's Republic of China]," he added.

Obama will go to Beijing and perhaps other regional capitals after the
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit in Singapore on November
14-15 and during this he expects a healthy and stable US-China relationship.

Obama was reportedly worried that any meeting with the Dalai Lama before his
visit to China might spoil the atmosphere for his talks with the Chinese
leaders. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, China, as the US's
largest creditor, could use its growing global clout to pressure world
nations not to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader.

Analysts believe if a meeting with the Dalai Lama happened before Obama
visited China, it would surely to spark an angry response and potentially
undermine Obama's hopes of building stronger relations between the US and

But some Chinese scholars downplayed the political aspect of a meeting
between Obama and the Dalai Lama. Shen Dingli, a professor on US studies at
the Institute of International Studies of Shanghai's Fudan University, was
quoted by Chinese media as saying that Obama's decision must have been made
out of economic and other interests that are vital to the US.

"I don't think we should feel provoked if Obama ever chooses to see the
Dalai Lama," Shen said. "Neither should we see it as a gesture of pleasing
China if Obama chooses not to see the Dalai Lama. Obama's decision is based
on the interests of his own country."

Elliot Sperling, an expert on Tibet at Indiana University, said China "will
certainly take note of the fact that Obama is treading carefully on the
Dalai Lama. The Tibetans have been thoroughly accommodating. The Dalai Lama
has given up most of the demands of the exile community for a country of
their own and instead has vague demands for autonomy," he said. "Basically,
they're in a position of weakness and the Chinese know it - and they're
playing it for everything they can."

Ren Donglai, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University
Center for Chinese and American Studies, told the Global Times, "The Dalai
Lama wants to upgrade his international influence by meeting with the US
president; the meeting with the Dalai Lama would be unwise against the
backdrop of the escalating trade spat between China and the US. Obama needs
to learn from the Sarkozy meeting."

Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India.
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