President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama at the White House on Friday Feb. 21 despite warnings from the Chinese government. China’s vexation with the president for meeting with the Buddhist monk is not only discouraging but also seemingly futile. The 14th Dalai Lama was exiled from Tibet in 1959 after Tibet-China relations grew extremely heated. He subsequently fled to India and now travels around the world advocating for human rights, nonviolence and the importance of compassion.
The Chinese government, however, has attempted to discourage other countries from welcoming the Dalai Lama into their borders and has given him the title of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs likewise warned the United States that Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama “will grossly interfere in the internal affairs of China, seriously violate norms governing international relations and severely impair China-U.S. relations.”
The White House has not given a very clear response to China’s threats but stated that, although Obama supports Tibetan human rights, he does not support the Tibetan struggle to gain independence from China.
Tibet and China have a long, bloody history over Tibetan autonomy. In acts of extreme protest, more than 120 Tibetans set themselves on fire to send a message to the Chinese government. Despite these protests for independence and human rights, China will not let go of its firm grip on the mountainous territory.
The principal question to address is whether Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama could create greater tension between the U.S. and China and whether the “low-key” meeting was actually even needed.
Critics of Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama say that there was no clear purpose for this conference. On the flipside, however, Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said, “A failure to have this meeting, or going through Obama’s second term without a meeting, would have made other countries’ leaders far less willing to stick their necks out to see the Dalai Lama.”
It seems a bit ludicrous that the Chinese government feels even remotely threatened by the president meeting with this peace-advocating, 78-year-old Buddhist monk. Although it is in the U.S.’ interest to maintain good relations with China – especially with the massive amount of money the U.S. is indebted to the country – it would have been unwise for Obama to ignore a man who is such a globally prominent and inspirational human rights activist.
In doing so, the president would be sending the message to other nations that America is not willing to outwardly stand up for human rights and equality on an international level.
It is unclear whether Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama will greatly disrupt the relationship between China and the U.S. or whether these were just empty threats on China’s part. The one thing that is certain, however, is that China’s disapproval reveals the drastic distance the country still has to come in expanding human rights for its citizens.