What Does Obama Gain by Avoiding the Dalai Lama?

John Pomfret's front page article in the Washington Post on the Obama administration's arm twisting of the Dalai Lama is quite astounding.

It is further reason to doubt that Obama's "strategic reassurance" policy is anything but a policy of appeasing the PRC. How far will this lead? Successive U.S. administrations have balanced the desire to integrate China into the international political order with concerns over China's intentions as it continues to gain in power. This is the historic challenge that all established powers face in dealing with rising powers. No matter what Obama thinks, America cannot just avoid basic dilemmas in international politics with which all great powers have had to grapple.

The other challenge, since China is a dictatorship and the United States is a highly ideological country (in the most basic sense that we are a people tied together by a set of ideas we believe to be universal), has always been how to engage China without abandoning core democratic principles. Obama, like his Secretary of State before him, has made great strides in undoing that balance. Why? What exactly will he get from abandoning a long-term U.S. policy of publicly supporting the Dali Lama?

Have the Chinese secretly agreed to squeeze the North Koreans or Iranians? Have we told Beijing we are going ahead with the sale of F-16s to Taiwan? I doubt it.

"Sources" claim that they hoped to gain cooperation from the Chinese on North Korean disarmament and the attempt to halt Iran's nuclear weapons drive. Another "source" claimed Obama is not "interested in symbolism" or "photo ops" that have not worked in the past.

These administration sources have now laid out the criteria against which Obama should be judged. Let's look for "deliverables" out of Obama's November China trip. We certainly have tried many times before to get the Chinese to be more proactive in disarming North Korea and in helping to resist Iran's destabilizing behavior. So let's see if the Obama administration's capitulation on the Dalai Lama now secures real Chinese moves against these countries which China so heavily subsidizes. It would be nice to get some concessions first before making concessions ourselves. Have the Chinese secretly agreed to squeeze the North Koreans or Iranians? Have we told Beijing we are going ahead with the sale of F-16s to Taiwan? I doubt it.

Then let's watch closely to see if the move away from "symbolism" (ironic as that is, given Obama's belief that his very existence as president is in and of itself changing the world) with respect to Tibet actually secures Tibetans' basic rights of religious freedom and cultural autonomy.

Count me as skeptical. Without many other levers of statecraft to affect Chinese behavior in Tibet, our "symbolic" high level meetings with the Dalai Lama are important morale boosters for Tibetans and human rights activists throughout China. And, these meetings provide some restraint over a China willing to go to extreme levels of brutality in repressing Tibetan rights.

Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author

 

Dan
Blumenthal
  • Dan Blumenthal is the director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and Sino-American relations.  Mr. Blumenthal has both served in and advised the U.S. government on China issues for over a decade.  From 2001 to 2004, he served as senior director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia at the Department of Defense.  Additionally, he served as a commissioner on the congressionally-mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission since 2006-2012, and held the position of vice chairman in 2007.  He has also served on the Academic Advisory Board of the congressional U.S.-China Working Group. Mr. Blumenthal is the co-author of "An Awkward Embrace: The United States and China in the 21st Century" (AEI Press, November 2012).

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    Email: dblumenthal@aei.org
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