Q+A: Does Dalai Lama meeting help or hurt Obama?

By Ross Colvin

WASHINGTON (BestGrowthStock) – U.S. President Barack Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama on Thursday comes at a time of increased tension between the United States and China, which has warned that the get-together will hurt Sino-U.S. ties.


Meeting the Dalai Lama, albeit not in the more official surroundings of the Oval Office but in the White House Map Room, may help Obama push back against an increasingly assertive China, which has already loudly complained about his plans to sell arms to Taiwan.

“There is a real value to the United States on the one hand making very clear that we not only seek to work with the Chinese on bilateral issues and major global issues, but also indicating that long-standing policies are not about to change,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a former Clinton administration official now with the Brookings Institution.

Some Chinese websites and hard-line newspapers have called on China’s government to take advantage of an America weakened by its worst economic crisis in decades.

“In light of that I think it is a good thing to push back on both Taiwan and Tibet,” said Douglas Paal, a China expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who as a senior official in George H.W. Bush’s administration escorted the Dalai Lama to his first meeting with a U.S. president.

“It restores some credibility with the Chinese that he (Obama) is not a pushover, they can’t try to bully him. I don’t think Chinese officials generally think that, but a lot of Chinese think that. That notion is percolating.”

A senior Obama administration official dismissed the notion that the meeting was intended to make a political statement. In his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in November, Obama had told him of his plans to sell weapons to Taiwan and meet the Dalai Lama, he said.

“So, the Chinese knew we were going to do these things. We’re now doing them,” the official said.


“It’s something that many people will look at and say, ‘Oh he does care after all. He is willing to stand up to the Chinese on this issue.’ I don’t think that’s why he’s doing it, but it may have that effect and if it does that’s just fine,” said Lieberthal.

Obama has been attacked by human rights groups for what they see as backsliding on human rights issues in China. They say his determination to work with China on global issues has come at the expense of human rights promotion, a charge Obama has rejected.

Rights groups were angered when he failed to directly raise specific cases during his trip to China and postponed a meeting beforehand with the Dalai Lama. So, they are likely to watch carefully to see what he says after his meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader.

“It remains to be seen how much of an opportunity the president will make of this to talk about human rights abuses not just in Tibet but in the rest of China,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.


China has threatened to impose sanctions against U.S. companies and curtail military-to-military contacts over the Obama administration’s planned arms sale to Taiwan, but Washington expects the reaction to the Dalai Lama meeting to be less aggressive.

“There is no reason why the reaction this time should be very different from what it’s been in the past, which has been they criticize it and then we move on with other aspects of the relationship,” said the senior administration official.

“Yes, there will be a certain amount of coolness … but it’s not going to overwhelm the relationship, nor is it going to be long term,” he said.

Some analysts say the Chinese may retaliate against the meeting by sending a lower-level official in place of Hu to attend a nuclear security summit being hosted by Washington in April, or take other small-scale steps such as denying some U.S. officials visas.

“Is it (the meeting) an additional irritation? Yes. But will it have spillover affects in other parts of our relationship? Frankly, I doubt it,” said Lieberthal, a former Asia director in the National Security Council.

“There are a wide variety of issues we engage on and that are very important to both sides, and I think neither side is interested in doing serious damage to our ability to cooperate on those issues,” he said.


Since 1990 every U.S. president has met the Dalai Lama at the White House. President George H.W. Bush started the tradition after the Chinese authorities crushed student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and an uprising in Tibet.

Paal remembers escorting the Dalai Lama to meet Bush in the family quarters of the White House.

“I asked him, ‘Have you ever met a president before?’ He chuckled and said, ‘Neither I nor any of my 13 previous incarnations have ever met a president.’ Then, when he met the president he did not politicize the meeting. They talked about spiritual matters.”

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(Reporting by Ross Colvin; editing by Patricia Wilson and Mohammad Zargham)

Q+A: Does Dalai Lama meeting help or hurt Obama?