What Can the Dalai Lama’s White House Visit Actually Accomplish?

A ChinaFile Conversation

On February 21, the Dalai Lama visited United States President Barack Obama in the White House over the objections of the Chinese government. Beijing labels the exiled spiritual leader a "wolf in sheep's clothing" who seeks to use violence to free Tibet from Chinese rule. The Dalai Lama, who fled to India after a failed uprising in 1959, disavows the use of violence and says he only wants autonomy for Tibetans. He and Obama previously met in February 2010 and July 2011.


What Can the Dalai Lama’s White House Visit Actually Accomplish? There are many reasons why President Obama was right to meet the Dalai Lama: firstly the president has the sovereign right to meet whomsoever he chooses within his own borders, a principle no leader should be willing to sacrifice. Secondly, although the Chinese government routinely issues loud but vague threats of retaliation, it rarely follows through. Some years ago, the European Union chamber of Commerce in Beijing investigated whether any variation in trade or investment between China and EU member states could be mapped against meetings with the Dalai Lama: they could find no correlation. Similarly, whilst the British prime minister David Cameron's meeting with the Dalai Lama in London in August of 2012 provoked protests and threats from Beijing that did cool political relations for more than a year, trade flows and investment flourished.

The decision to hold such meetings is a matter of political judgment rather than economic risk: is the Dalai Lama a terrorist or an individual whose record should preclude such a meeting? What does it signal at home and abroad? What might it achieve?  

Pace Beijing’s rhetoric, the Dalai Lama is not a terrorist, but one of the world’s leading advocates of non-violence. Meeting him signals that the host country supports the proposition that human rights matter, and that non-violence and dialogue are the best way to resolve disputes, especially disputes as bitter and intractable as this one.

Beijing, of course, continues to insist that meeting the Dalai Lama implicates President Obama in a threat to China’s territorial integrity. In fact, the Dalai Lama is asking for “meaningful autonomy” within the borders of the P.R.C. on behalf of the Tibetan people, a position, ironically, that the P.R.C. also claims to embrace. In fact, the so-called 17 Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, the treaty signed under duress by the government of Tibet and the P.R.C. in 1951, provided for just such a meaningful autonomy. A more recent precedent is the "one country, two systems" agreement that governs relations between Hong Kong and the P.R.C., which allows Hong Kong considerable freedom to run its own affairs, whilst enshrining Beijing’s sovereignty.

Besides, if China seriously regards any meeting with individuals who advocate separatism or independence as a threat to national sovereignty, what are we to make of the several meetings that Prime Minister Li Keqiang has held with the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond? Mr. Salmond is definitely a “splittist”: as leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, he has built his entire political career on the case for Scottish independence and hopes to win a referendum on independence later this year.

The U.K. government has offered no protest to Beijing about any of the several meetings  that have taken place between Mr. Salmond and Li Keqiang, all of them loaded with political significance for Mr. Salmond. When Premier Li Keqiang obliged his host by donning a tartan tie, should the UK government have read it as a gesture of support for Mr. Salmond’s efforts to break up the United Kingdom?

Tibetans are increasingly alienated from Beijing, a trend that has accelerated since the uprising in 2008, and Beijing’s continuing heavy security response. The fact than 126 citizens have chosen to set fire to themselves since 2009, rather than to continue to live under the conditions that Beijing has created, is hardly a ringing endorsement of China’s policies. But, far from concluding that its actions have been counter-productive, Beijing has compounded its many errors by insisting on blaming a spiritual leader who has been in exile since 1959.

By Beijing’s logic, the Dalai Lama continues to wield astonishing power and authority among Tibetan people, most of whom have never seen him and have no direct memory of life before the Chinese occupation. If that is what Beijing truly believes, the case for resuming talks with the Dalai Lama is even stronger: not only will there be no peace without negotiation, but by Beijing’s own reasoning, the Dalai Lama remains the only figure with the authority to win acceptance of a negotiated settlement, both in the exile community and in Tibet.

Such an agreement would benefit China in many ways: it would improve its international image and relations with India and Nepal, and it would alleviate the growing suffering and despair in Tibet. This would spare the Chinese government the security risks of further unrest and the costs of keeping Tibet locked down for the foreseeable future.

Since the uprising in 2008, mistrust between Tibetans and Han has grown, and, although Beijing appears to have learned remarkably few lessons, there is, nevertheless, a subdued debate in Beijing on China’s policy failures in Tibet.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has a great opportunity, as a new leader, to make a fresh start, and to challenge the vested interests that cling to the old, failed approach, but the opportunity to reach a settlement is shrinking: the Dalai Lama is no longer young, and, since his years of advocacy of non-violence have not been rewarded, many young Tibetans regard his policy as a dead end. Without his restraining authority, the situation could certainly deteriorate further.

If this small window closes, the best opportunity for a settlement that would benefit both sides will be lost. It is strongly in the interests of China’s partners to encourage a change of policy in Beijing by all possible means, including through frequent meetings with the Dalai Lama. To fail to meet him out of fear of Beijing’s protests and threats risks encouraging the mistaken belief that China’s policies in Tibet are acceptable to its trade partners and to international public opinion. Such an outcome would be seen as a victory for the hardliners in Beijing. Meeting the Dalai Lama is not, in itself, enough to break the policy ice in China, but it is a key signal of a commitment to a constructive and peaceful settlement.

While I agree with Isabel Hilton’s major point, I disagree on one minor point, which is whether there is indeed a ‘Dalai Lama effect’ on economic relations with China. Two economists looked at this in 2010 in a paper entitled “Paying a Visit: The Dalai Lama Effect on International Trade.” They found that there is indeed such an effect, but it is fairly modest: “Our empirical results support the idea that countries officially receiving the Dalai Lama at the highest political level are punished through a reduction of their exports to China. However, this ‘Dalai Lama effect’ is only observed for the Hu Jintao era and not for earlier periods. Furthermore, we find that this effect is mainly driven by reduced exports of machinery and transport equipment and that it disappears two years after a meeting took place.”

Right on, Ms. Hilton! Your own Prime Minister should take heed of your excellent reasoning and all other world leaders should join president Obama in meeting the Dalai Lama frequently and thereby maintaining the mild and friendly suggestion to Beijing to rein in their own failed “hardliners” who insist on the ineffective policy of “crushing the minorities” and try on the modern approach of peaceful engagement, cultural pluralism, “loose reins” management, etc. that has borne such good fruit in the case of Hong Kong, for example. Thank you for your clear explanation.

Isabel Hilton hits the nail on the head in her response. First of all, it is important to remember what is unfortunately no longer obvious; that it is the right—and I would say also the duty—of any democratic leader to decide autonomously who to meet or not to meet to accomplish his or her mandate. Accepting the diktats of an authoritarian government, however powerful, does not bode well for the health of democratic institutions. Also, she rightly concludes that the window is shrinking for the Chinese to make a deal with the Dalai Lama, and that the situation could get a lot worse once the Dalai Lama’s calming influence both inside and outside Tibet is gone.

Apart from this, the main accomplishments of the Dalai Lama-President Obama meeting are to “keep hope alive” for oppressed Tibetans and to keep the question of Tibet on the radar of international relations. Each year, Tibetans witness even greater pressure against their culture, their rights and their dignity, under unrelenting Chinese policies of assimilation. Little will buoy a Tibetan heart more than seeing their spiritual and national leader meeting with the leader of the free world. It tells them their plight is not forgotten, and that a better future may yet come. The first time the Dalai Lama met President Obama, Tibetans in Ngaba set off fireworks and chanted prayers to mark the auspicious meeting.

We know from history that dissidents and democrats who were struggling for freedom, in places such as in the Soviet Union, were listening carefully to every word and act of solidarity coming from the leader of the west. We later learned that those words were very important to keep their hope alive.

As for the international relevance of the meeting, the decision of President Obama to meet the Dalai Lama comes at a time of increasing territorial and military tensions between China and some of its democratic neighbors, where crucial security interests for the United States and the world are at stake. This meeting shows to the Chinese that the United States does not accept the propaganda coming from Beijing regarding its “liberating” Tibet from the oppression of the Dalai Lama and its clique.

On the contrary, the United States reminds China that, notwithstanding the importance of economic relations between the two countries, the imposition of assimilation and authoritarian rule in Tibet cannot be accepted as a fait accompli. Instead, a negotiated solution should be pursued. In this context, we can assume that the message from this meeting, coming before Obama’s visit to Asia (but not China), is not only about Tibet.

Speaking of assimilation, it was very welcome to see the White House use the word for the first time in its statement: “The United States supports the Dalai Lama’s ‘Middle Way’ approach of neither assimilation nor independence for Tibetans in China.” This is a clear signal—that both names and shames—of American displeasure at Beijing’s policies in Tibet.

The U.S. President meets with the Dalai Lama because it is consistent with U.S. policy and values. For decades, the United States has sought to promote dialogue toward a solution on Tibet, to preserve Tibetan culture, religion and language, and to improve the human rights situation there. Such meetings advance U.S. policy by deepening its understanding of the Tibetan moment, and reiterating to the Chinese the U.S. expectation of its desire for results through meaningful dialogue.


Dalai Lama visits to the White House do not come in a vacuum. Every Administration knows the depth of bipartisan support Tibet has in the U.S. Congress. They know the Dalai Lama has broad support among the American public, as reflected though the advocacy work of groups like the International Campaign for Tibet, and the studies at Tibetan Buddhist centers around the country. At its core, U.S. concerns for Tibet reflect its embrace of universal values and fundamental freedoms. The Tibet problem is compelling, and U.S. policy-makers are compelled.

As Bob Thurman writes, there are lessons to be learned here. European leaders should have nothing to fear from meeting the Dalai Lama. The only fear should be about a rising authoritarian China unwilling to implement basic reforms in the rule of law and justice system necessary to handle ethnic and territorial tensions. E.U. leaders should realize that they need to act in a concerted way to reduce the pressure from China on individual countries. Failure to solve the Tibet problem while the Dalai Lama is around may result in a less stable China when he is not, thus jeopardizing the trade benefits and investments E.U. leaders are so keen to see.

It is not the first time that an American President has met the Dalai Lama. However, while talk of a “new phase of Great Power Relations” has become a catchphrase in both China and the U.S., this meeting is not likely to impede continuous efforts by Washington and Beijing to build a positive relationship.

In Beijing’s eyes the Dalai Lama is regarded as a “splittist.” In fact, many countries around the world have been confronted with separatist movements, and have dealt with them differently. Isabel mentioned the British “splittist” Alex Salmond. On February 24, British Prime Minister David Cameron held a Cabinet meeting in Scotland and announced a major plan for the North Sea. Shortly after the announcement, Mr. Salmond laid out a rival plan to win the hearts of the Scottish voters.

A war of words will continue until September 18, 2014. So far, both sides appear to be rather rational: using evidence and promises to win over the Scottish people. Perhaps this is the lesson countries facing similar problems should learn.

The CCP Government denouncing the President of the United States (POTUS) for meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama (HHDL) reflects the policy goal of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of making the world safe for authoritarian regimes which violate fundamental human rights. CCP. leaders experience the promotion of internationally recognized human rights as an existential threat to their right to rule with a monopoly of arbitrary power.

An imperative for good relations with the CCP. government, that government proclaims, is that the other government block attempts in the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UN HRC) and elsewhere to explore the CCP regime’s human rights record. In short, it is wrong to see this CCP denunciation of the POTUS for meeting HHDL as mere ritual and rhetoric. This really matters for the CCP.

Some therefore argue that, given how important the PRC is for matters of war and peace, environmental sustainability and economic prosperity, the POTUS, indeed the governments of all the industrial democracies, should stop upsetting the PRC with human rights issues. Surely we all care about these larger issues. Surely there is something to be said for putting the CCP cultural war on Tibetans in some larger perspective. If the argument for the POTUS meeting HHDL is that, our contributors seem to suggest, that the CCP does not follow through on threats about economic retaliation, does that mean that if the CCP did retaliate, then the POTUS should not meet with HHDL?

The PRC is winning its war on internationally recognized human rights. The industrialized democracies seem incapable of cooperating to stand up to the CCP onslaught. Instead, I fear, Airbus and VW and Toyota will secretly hope that the PRC will, respond to the POTUS meeting HHDL, by hurting GMC and Boeing, and favoring their OECD competitors.

There are very large issues at stake here which should not be obscured by a celebration of the POTUS meeting with HHDL. Freedom is not winning.