Meeting with Dalai Lama signals growing US realisation that there is little to gain by kowtowing to China over human rights and Tibet

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Free Tibet welcomes the decision by President Obama to meet the Dalai Lama at the White House today.

The meeting is significant. By meeting the Dalai Lama at the White House the President is sending an important signal that his administration sees the Dalai Lama not just as a religious leader, but also as the legitimate leader of the Tibetan people who is able to represent the political aspirations of the Tibetan people. Speaking in advance of today’s meeting, White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs acknowledged the Dalai Lama’s importance to the Tibetan people in their struggle to regain their rights by saying:

"The Dalai Lama is an internationally respected religious leader and spokesman for Tibetan rights, and the President looks forward to an engaging and constructive dialogue."

The meeting also indicates that the White House is beginning to realise that it has gained little from China in the past year by soft-pedalling on human rights. In February 2009 US Secretary of State announced on an official visit to Beijing that the US did not want differences over human rights to overshadow co-operation on pressing concerns such as climate. But a year on it is clear that the US has gained nothing by toning down its criticisms of China’s human rights record: China’s bullying and obstructive tactics at the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit were widely blamed for the failure to arrive at a legally-binding agreement on emissions-cuts; and China has subsequently made it clear to the US that it will block any attempt by the US in the UN Permanent Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran as a result of Iran’s nuclear programme.

China has also refused to date to make any concessions to the US on the issue of its artificially weak currency. The Chinese government’s refusal to appreciate the value of the yuan to market levels means that China continues to enjoy an unfair competitive advantage in trade with the US. The flooding of the US market with its artificially cheap goods by China has made it harder for the US to revive its flagging economy.

By facing down intense Chinese opposition to the meeting with the Dalai Lama, therefore, the US appears to have realised belatedly that there is little to gain from China by staying quiet on human rights and that instead its national interests may be better served by beginning to take a much more assertive approach with China across the board, including human rights.

Free Tibet welcomes this approach and hopes that the UK and other international governments will follow this US lead by taking a similarly more assertive approach when engaging with China on human rights. Like the US, the UK has failed to gain any positive outcomes in improvements in human rights in China and Tibet from its long-standing policy of “constructive engagement” with China – diplomatic code for public silence on human rights. Nor has the UK gained any noticeable advantage on other issues as a result of muting criticism of China’s human rights abuses. Even after the UK offered China a huge concession over Tibet in 2008 by stating for the first time in almost 100 years that Britain regarded Tibet as “part of the People’s Republic of China”, China felt in no way obliged to offer reciprocal concessions. Instead China refused to listen to British entreaties not to execute a British national and then reacted furiously to British complaints last December over the execution by summarily cancelling a human rights dialogue between the two countries. That dialogue had already been delayed by months.

Read the Guardian's report following the meeting here
Read more about US-China relations here.