President Barack Obama’s interactions with the Dalai Lama have always been an awkward dance. Meeting with a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, especially one as widely recognized and respected as Tenzin Gyatso, would seem to be the sort of thing Obama would welcome. In the U.S. political scene the Tibetan spiritual leader is the rare sort of figure embraced by liberal Democrats who make up the core of Obama’s base and conservative Republicans who see the Dalai Lama as a symbol of the fight for religious freedom within China.
But the president tiptoes around his encounters with Dalai Lama, as if they were two delinquents meeting to surreptitiously smoke a cigarette on the edge of the schoolyard, rather than two globally recognized figures meeting to discuss the problems of the world. The reason for Obama’s reticence is of course China, which considers the Dalai Lama to be a “splittist” who advocates for Tibetan independence, despite his statements to the contrary. With China a growing power on the world stage, and the holder of a significant proportion of U.S. debt, the president is wary of antagonizing the leadership in Beijing.
(PHOTOS: The Dalai Lama Visits the White House)
While his predecessor George W. Bush presented the Dalai Lama with a Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor, Obama has followed the approach of other sitting U.S. presidents and avoided meeting the Tibetan spiritual leader in public. Obama held off seeing the Dalai Lama while he was in Washington in 2009, only meeting with him months later after the president had made his first official visit to China. The two met in the Map Room of the White House rather than the Oval Office, and no television cameras were allowed. The White House later provided a still photo of the two men together, but the most memorable image was a shot of the Dalai Lama leaving the White House via the Palm Room doors, with bags of trash lining his path.
When Dalai Lama visited Obama on Saturday, the White House followed a similar protocol, holding the meeting in the Map Room and limiting images to an official still photo. Presumably such steps are meant to limit Chinese anger. It was only last week, during a visit to China by the highest-ranking U.S. military officer, chairman of the joint chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen, that his counterpart, Gen. Chen Bingde, criticized the Dalai Lama’s visits with U.S. politicians. After the Obama meeting deputy foreign minister Cui Tiankai summoned Robert S. Wang, the chargé d’affaires of the U.S. embassy in Beijing, to complain. In a statement on its website the Chinese foreign ministry called the visit “a serious interference in China’s internal affairs that hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, hurts China’s core interests and hurts Sino-U.S. relations.”
In an online statement the White House said that Obama “reiterated his strong support for the preservation of the unique religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions of Tibet and the Tibetan people throughout the world” and “underscored the importance of the protection of human rights of Tibetans in China.” The statement also reiterated U.S. policy that Tibet is a part of China, and the U.S. does not support Tibetan independence. Such lines, like the conditions of the meeting, are meant to assuage China. But they may make little difference. To the Chinese government, meeting with Dalai Lama is an affront, regardless of how the White House manages it. The last time the two met marked the beginning of a rough period for Sino-U.S. ties, when issues over which the two sides disagree, from American arms sales to Taiwan to the value of Chinese currency, came to the forefront. After a smooth period surrounding Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington in January, more strife could be on the way.