In an attempt to gain favor with China, the United States pressured Tibetan representatives to postpone a meeting between the Dalai Lama and President Obama until after Obama’s summit with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, scheduled for next month, according to diplomats, government officials and other sources familiar with the talks.
For the first time since 1991, the Tibetan spiritual leader will visit Washington this week and not meet with the president. Since 1991, he has been here 10 times. Most times the meetings have been “drop-in” visits at the White House. The last time he was here, in 2007, however, George W. Bush became the first sitting president to meet with him publicly, at a ceremony at the Capitol in which he awarded the Dalai Lama the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’s highest civilian award.
The U.S. decision to postpone the meeting appears to be part of a strategy to improve ties with China that also includes soft-pedaling criticism of China’s human rights and financial policies as well as backing efforts to elevate China’s position in international institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund. Obama administration officials have termed the new policy “strategic reassurance,” which entails the U.S. government taking steps to convince China that it is not out to contain the emerging Asian power.
Before a visit to China in February, for example, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said advocacy for human rights could not “interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate-change crisis and the security crisis” — a statement that won her much goodwill in Beijing. U.S. Treasury officials have also stopped accusing China of artificially deflating the value of its currency to make its exports more attractive.
In explaining their reluctance to meet the Dalai Lama now, U.S. officials told Tibetan representatives that they wanted to work with China on critical issues, including nuclear weapons proliferation in North Korea and Iran, said an Asian diplomat with direct knowledge of the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. Administration officials also hinted that they were considering selling a new tranche of weapons to Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory.
“They were worried about too many irritating factors all at once,” said the Asian diplomat. “They didn’t want to have too many things straining the relationship.” What is not clear is whether the administration was bending to specific Chinese demands or whether it decided unilaterally, in the words of one participant in the talks, “to throw the Chinese a bone.”
Honestly, I’m not sure which is worse.