Dalai Dilemma

Photo by Pete Souza

The author of the article contemplates America’s relations with the Dalai Lama, with respect to China

Since the Dalai Lama’s exile from Tibet, it has become a tradition that the Dalai Lama meets with the American president—and this has not changed. However, as China’s power has grown, it has begun to stand up to the United States on issues that the Communist Party views as key. The relationship between the United States and the Dalai Lama is one of these issues. For China, the visit between the President and the Dalai Lama is more than respect for a leader of one of the major religions—it is an insult.

The relationship between China and Tibet has always been tense, and as the Dalai Lama’s international popularity continues to rise, the situation has grown worse. China’s long time history of relations with Tibet led to their invasion on the claim that Tibet is part of China—and this stance is one that they aggressively seek for the other countries to recognize. This has been a particular problem for Chinese internal politics because of the immense nationalism fostered by the Communist Party, which is continuously offended by Western actions towards Taiwan, remembrance of the events of Tiananmen Square, and common perspectives on Tibet. Throughout modern history, Chinese sovereignty has been trampled by the West, as was seen in the Opium War with Great Britain, the presence of spheres of influence, and the Boxer and Taiping Rebellions that had to be put down with European troops.

So what to most Americans seems like a formality and gesture of respect to a major religious leader seems to many Chinese like a slap in the face to their sovereignty. “The behaviour [sic] of the US… seriously interferes in China’s internal politics and seriously hurts the national feelings of the Chinese people” [1]. When paired with events like the recent announcement of arms sales to Taiwan [2], it’s easy to see how Sino-American relations have recently taken a downturn.

This can also be seen in the Chinese government’s efforts to show the world how important Tibet is to them: the Panchen Lama is the an important figure in the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism, second only to the Dalai Lama himself. When the Dalai Lama identified the next Panchen Lama, the Chinese government claimed it was another boy and is suspected by many to be responsible for the original Panchen Lama’s disappearance. Now the Chinese government’s choice has been given a position in a major Chinese political organization [3] in an attempt to set him up as an alternative to the Dalai Lama, despite the beliefs of many Tibetans that he is not the true reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. This has been a long-time problem with the United States’ because of the Dalai Lama’s popularity and the American emphasis on freedom of religion.

Such disagreements make it ever more clear that China and the United States simply do not see eye-to-eye on any major international goals. China emphasizes sovereignty; the United States emphasizes human rights. China emphasizes a stable society; America the freedom of the internet. And, most importantly, two of America’s major goals—the rebalancing of trade and sanctions on Iran—are largely ignored by China [4]. One of the few major goals that the United States and China agree upon is the restoration of a stable economy—but what makes the Chinese economy stable is not what makes the US economy stable, which simply leads to more divergence.

In light of such issues, the question arises as to whether or not the United States government should continue to meet with the Dalai Lama. Meeting with the Dalai Lama has now become an honored tradition in the United States, but it serves as more than a simple ceremony: it is a way for a figure who has become increasingly popular in the United States to meet with the head of government. More importantly, it is a reminder to the Chinese government of how important freedom of religion is to Americans—the policies that the Chinese Communist Party holds towards religious groups is considered over-controlling by many Americans, and some even take it as far as calling it a human-rights infringement, citing events in Tibet as an example. The White House did what it could to tone down the visit and avoid offending China out of respect, but in the end the question comes down to whether or not the United States should completely change its policies on this important issue to appease China’s sensitivities. Is respect enough, or should policies be completely dependent on the opinions of another country’s government? Judging by the actions of the Obama Administration, it appears that the answer is no.

Works Cited

[1] “China ‘hurt’ by Dalai Lama visit.” BBC News. 19 February 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8524724.stm

[2] “China Blames U.S. for Strained Relations.” New York Times. NYTimes.com. 7 March 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/08/world/asia/08china.html

[3] “China raises profile of Dalai Lama rival ‘Panchen Lama’.” BBC News. 1 March 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8542369.stm

[4] “Differences in Priorities Drive U.S. Rift with China—An Analysis.” New York Times. NYTimes.com. 19 February 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/20/world/asia/20china.html

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Cover image is an Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

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