WASHINGTON—U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to defer a meeting with Tibet's exiled spiritual leader has drawn criticism here but could be aimed at jump-starting talks between the Dalai Lama's envoys and Beijing, experts say.
The Dalai Lama was unable to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama last week, marking the first time since 1991 that he traveled to Washington without sitting down with a U.S. head of state.
David Phillips, director of the Program on Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding at American University here, said the move by the White House during the Dalai Lama’s visit to Washington was “not a snub.”
“If the president is able to advocate in Beijing the resumption of talks, and those talks are meaningful and sincere, that would be a real validation of his engagement policy,” Phillips said.
“That would be much more meaningful than a photo opportunity in October,” he said.
Robert Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University, called the postponement “an innovation in strategies of dealing with Chinese sensitivities.”
“I think the Obama administration was trying to do something rather constructive and interesting by showing they respect Chinese concerns but they don’t entirely concede to them,” he said.
But Barnett added that Chinese commentators see the move as a token gesture, while some commentators in the West see it as a cave-in to Chinese pressure.
“That failure can be restored in terms of domestic use if an Obama meeting takes place in a short time, which is quite likely. It can also be restored if the Chinese come back to talks again. Then the Obama people can say that there was some quid pro quo in return,” Barnett said.
No presidential meeting
The Dalai Lama was presented with an award last Tuesday by top congressional leaders from the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in a ceremony at the Capitol building in Washington, though he was unable to secure a meeting with Obama.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs rejected suggestions that Obama was bowing to pressure from Beijing, despite recent efforts to strengthen bilateral relations with China.
Instead, Gibbs said, Obama will meet the Dalai Lama later this year, following Obama's first official visit to Beijing in November.
Some congressional Republicans accused Obama of “kowtowing” to Beijing and voiced concern that China would regard his decision as an acceptance of further restrictions in Tibet.
China accuses the Dalai Lama of separatism, though he says he only wants greater autonomy for his people under Chinese rule.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu has said Beijing is “resolutely against the Dalai's engagement in activities aimed at splitting China under any capacity, under any name, and in any country.”
Prospect of talks
White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett’s September meeting with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, was followed by the announcement that Obama would not meet with the Dalai Lama on his trip to Washington.
Barnett said the decision to delay an October meeting in Washington appeared to respond to Chinese pressure because the Jarrett meeting was seen by some Western commentators as a bid to pressure the Tibetans.
“Their original strategy would only have worked if the Tibetans had, of their own accord, agreed to change their request. Once you’ve sent someone publicly to apparently push them to do that, then quite a different message has been communicated,” Barnett said.
Barnett said one of the problems that results from the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic reassurance” is that "reassurance" is in the eye of the beholder.
“You’re giving the other side—China—a free ticket to decide what does or doesn’t reassure them,” he said.
Phillips said the Dalai Lama’s Washington visit was planned well in advance and wouldn't have been canceled despite any message that Jarrett may have conveyed about the possibility of a meeting with Obama.
“The plans were in the works for a long time as part of a long tour. He’s not going to rearrange all of these programs just because his meeting with the president is deferred."
He added that after Obama travels to Beijing in November, the Dalai Lama “will come back soon, and he will have a White House meeting and be received in a manner befitting his standing as the leader of the Tibetans.”
Phillips said that Obama would likely raise the issue of talks between Beijing and Dharamsala on the Tibet issue, but noted that the Chinese haven't shown good will to Tibetan envoys in the past.
“It would be a departure for them to suddenly take negotiations seriously. But that doesn’t mean you give up on political talks. You have to keep trying,” Phillips said.
“If China makes the strategic decision in this instance to settle this fully and finally by establishing genuine autonomy for the Tibetans, it would strengthen China’s territorial integrity and reaffirm its sovereignty,” he said.
“If they miss the chance, then [the Tibetan question] could become radicalized and the Dalai Lama may not be here to put his moral stamp of approval on any future agreements.”
Original reporting by Joshua Lipes. Additional reporting by wire services. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.