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Dalai Lama Visit Fuels Friction Between China, U.S.

February 18, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Chinese officials openly criticized President Obama's decision to meet with exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, on Thursday. Beijing warned that U.S. recognition of Tibet as an independent state would further strain Sino-U.S. relations. Jeffrey Brown speaks to two experts about recent tension between the nations.

JEFFREY BROWN: But first: A Washington meeting raises the tension level between the United States and China.

A warm welcome for the Dalai Lama early this morning outside the White House. Inside, the official reception was more low-key and private. This was the only photo the White House released of Tibet’s spiritual leader meeting with President Obama.

Afterward, the 74-year-old Dalai Lama said he was — quote — “very happy” with the meeting with his fellow Nobel Peace laureate.

DALAI LAMA, exiled Tibetan spiritual leader: I always admire America, not economy or military power, but mainly as a champion of democracy, freedom, human value, of human creativity.

JEFFREY BROWN: A White House spokesman said the president commended the Dalai Lama’s commitment to nonviolence and pursuit of dialogue with China.

But Donald Lopez a Tibet specialist at the University of Michigan, said the Dalai Lama is hoping for strong American advocacy.

DONALD LOPEZ, professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies, University of Michigan: I think the Dalai Lama would like President Obama to make the Tibetan case to the Chinese. The Tibetan case, in this particular instance, would simply mean higher-level, more serious negotiations about the return of some kind of cultural and religious autonomy to both the Tibet Autonomous Region and the large Tibetan ethnic population in neighboring Chinese provinces.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tibet has been under Chinese control since 1950. The Dalai Lama is considered a separatist by Beijing. He’s been in exile since a 1959 uprising. Last Sunday, he marked a more recent uprising against Chinese rule in 2008.

DALAI LAMA (through translator): Tibetans inside Tibet are the real citizens of Tibet. People are grieving in many parts of Tibet.

JEFFREY BROWN: China crushed the protests of two years ago, and Tibet remains in a virtual lockdown.

DONALD LOPEZ: The situation in Tibet is more repressive than it’s been probably in over a decade, a higher security presence, much more restrictions on travel. People who write poems about the Dalai Lama are placed in prison. There is just a much higher level of tension.

JEFFREY BROWN: China has opposed all meetings between foreign leaders and the Dalai Lama. And, in Beijing, the foreign ministry said it was — quote — “strongly dissatisfied” with today’s White House session. But it said nothing about retaliation.

Last October, President Obama declined to meet the Dalai Lama before a summit with the Chinese. And, while in Beijing, he was careful in how he addressed the issue.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: The United States supports the early resumption of dialogue between the Chinese government and representatives of the Dalai Lama to resolve any concerns and differences that the two sides may have.

JEFFREY BROWN: The U.S. does recognize Tibet as part of China, but the issue remains a tense one, just part of a relationship that’s grown increasingly complex, as China gains strength within Asia and globally, a sentiment reflected on the streets of Beijing.

MAN (through translator): I feel that our country is strong now, so we really don’t have to give in to the U.S. on every matter.

JEFFREY BROWN: The last several months have seen a series of flash points. The recent U.S. announcement of a $6 billion arms sales to Taiwan angered Beijing.

Last month, Google revealed extensive Chinese hacking of its users’ e-mail accounts, including those of human rights activists. And, in December, China and the U.S. deadlocked over how to reach a deal on climate change at the Copenhagen conference.

In addition, China’s halting cooperation or outright opposition to action on the Iranian and North Korean nuclear issues has complicated any efforts by the U.S. to rein in those states. There are also continuing economic tensions. China holds hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. government debt, in effect, becoming a major stakeholder in the American economy.

China also maintains a huge trade imbalance with the United States, according to U.S. officials, keeping its currency artificially low, so that Chinese exports are cheaper to buy.

And for more on all this, we turn to Susan Shirk, director of the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation — she was a deputy assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration — and Gordon Chang, who lived in China and Hong Kong as a lawyer for American and international law firms. He’s an author and writes a weekly column for

Gordon Chang, starting with you, how significant is this — was this meeting with the Dalai Lama?

GORDON CHANG, author/columnist: I think it was significant, because it shows a recalibration of American policy.

President Obama came into office with an especially conciliatory policy towards China. He didn’t see the Dalai Lama in October, as your piece noted. He had a very difficult summit with the Chinese in November. And, in December, on an issue very important to the president, the Chinese snubbed him in Copenhagen at the climate change talks.

So, I think what we’re seeing is — is really a rethinking of Chinese policy — China policy. And, essentially, this meeting today is a signal to Beijing that things might be different in the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: Susan Shirk, how — what do you see in a meeting like this? Is it mostly symbolic, done for show? Is there some real impact out of it?

SUSAN SHIRK, director, University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation: Well, I disagree with Gordon. I see it as completely consistent with what past presidents have done.

And the Chinese knew that President Obama would meet the Dalai Lama. He always intended to. He simply wanted to go to Beijing and make the case for dialogue with Tibet before meeting with him. And I’m sure, today, he was debriefing the Dalai Lama on those discussions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me try to frame this — this — this debate that you have just started, Gordon Chang, starting with you.

We just listed a number of areas of tension. Does it add up to a more aggressive, a more assertive stance by China?

GORDON CHANG: Well, certainly, you know we have seen that.

It was Google, where they complained about information imperialism. Then, you had Tibet, where they threatened to injure the American economy. On Taiwan, they publicly said that they might sanction U.S. companies for selling arms to Taiwan. They have never done that before.

You know, clearly, over the last six months, China has been more assertive. I think it’s partly in response to what they saw as American policy. They were testing the president. And, also, there may be some problems inside the regime in Beijing, succession problems, things like that.

And it makes it more difficult to compromise with the U.S. in — when people are jockeying for power.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see that, Susan Shirk, a more aggressive stance?

SUSAN SHIRK: Well, I do see greater assertiveness in China’s public statements.

And I — I, myself, attribute that to domestic developments in China, especially because China recovered first from the global financial crisis. The global financial crisis was caused primarily by problems with the U.S. financial system. And this has led to a misperception on the part of many people in China that the Chinese economy is already the strongest in the world.

If you look at the Pew surveys, it’s striking how rapidly public opinion in China has changed in its perceptions of Chinese strength. So, that creates a demand from the public to the leadership, which, because of its own insecurity, is actually quite responsive to public opinion in China today.


SUSAN SHIRK: So, I see this…

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, go ahead.

SUSAN SHIRK: … as not a reflection of Obama policy, but caused by domestic developments inside China.

JEFFREY BROWN: But do those domestic developments — and staying with you for a moment — do those reflect a kind of — or represent any sort of threat or danger to the United States?

SUSAN SHIRK: No, I don’t think they do, because, in China, tough words are sometimes a substitute for tough actions.

So, I think we need to look very carefully at what China is actually doing. And, there, I think the signals are mixed. For example, they just allowed the United States aircraft carrier Nimitz to visit Hong Kong. And, in the past, they have sometimes canceled those visit because they were unhappy with something that we have done.

So, I think they will continue to be quite noisy, especially on issues like Taiwan and Tibet, but I think they will continue to see that their long-term strategic interests lie in a decent, cooperative relationship with the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see, Gordon Chang, something a little more of a threat than that?

GORDON CHANG: I think we’re going to really see something when the U.S. goes to the U.N. Security Council and wants a fourth set of sanctions on Iran in connection…

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean you see that as a flash — as a real flash point?

GORDON CHANG: That is — that as a flash point, and that’s a real test of China’s ability to work with the international system, because now even Russia, which was the primary backer of Iran, is thinking of sanctions. Certainly, Western Europe is.

Only the Chinese at this point don’t want to see more coercive diplomacy. And, right now, this is a matter of first importance for the United States. Chinese media has said that, in connection with Tibet and Taiwan, you know, if the United States doesn’t cooperate with us, we will not cooperate with the United States on core international issues of importance to them.

So, you know, this will really be the test of whether Beijing is going to be especially hostile or whether it will, as Susan says, work with the international community.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, from the U.S. side, you were talking earlier about this meeting perhaps as suggesting a recalibration of U.S. policy. Is that something you think is needed? Has U.S. policy been ineffective, given the kind of internal changes, or — or however you want to think of it as changes or threats, that we see in China?

GORDON CHANG: I think, over the last two or three months, it’s difficult to make the case that U.S. policy has been effective in moving the Chinese in better directions.

We saw Copenhagen, for instance, that the reaction on Taiwan was really outsized. The way they’re dealing with the Google issue, I think, is — is deeply, deeply troubling. And, so, I think we really do need to look at our policies and — and hopefully push the Chinese in a better direction.

And I think we really do need to change what we’re doing at this point.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Susan Shirk, what do you think about U.S. policy? Is it a question of managing these differences, something that is doable, or do we need a more aggressive stance of our own?

SUSAN SHIRK: Well, I think the Obama administration approach has been consistent with what every administration starting with Nixon has done, which is to try to find a basis for cooperating with China, while maintaining our own national strength.

And I don’t see, really, any significant differences in the Obama administration approach. And I think that we need to keep a calm hand on the tiller, not overreact to Chinese rhetoric with rhetoric of our own, and just basically continue the efforts to try to work together with them.

But I do agree with Gordon that the United Nations’ action on Iran will be a very important test. And if Beijing actually vetoed, which I don’t think really will happen, but is the odd person out, the odd country out on Iran’s sanctions, then that will be a new kind of approach on China’s part, which would cause me great concern.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, next test — there’s one next test, and then we will watch for others.

Gordon Chang and Susan Shirk, thank you both very much.

GORDON CHANG: Thank you.

SUSAN SHIRK: Thank you.