Obama and LamaObama’s insensitivity

By S. M. Hali 

President Obama has hurt Chinese sensitivities by hosting the Dalai Lama at the White House on February 21, 2014. The meeting between the US President and the XIVth Dalai Lama lasted for about an hour despite Chinese protests and requests for the US President to call off the meeting. China had warned that the meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader would be considered a direct incursion in China’s domestic affairs and would “seriously damage” ties with Washington but President Obama went ahead with the meeting.

According to Chinese official news agency Xinhua, following the meeting, the Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui of China summoned the US chargé d’affaires Daniel Kritenbrink in Beijing to protest President Obama’s insensitivity.

Subsequent to the 1959 failed revolt in Tibet, the XIVth Dalai Lama fled to India where he was given sanctuary by the Indian Prime Minister Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, who facilitated him in establishing a government in exile. Indian ingress into Chinese territory led to the Sino-Indian conflict in 1962, in which Indian troops were badly mauled.

The US, on the other hand, has been supporting Chinese dissidents from the early 1960’s. According to a New York Times story of October 2, 1998, Tibetan dissidents received $1.7 million a year from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) while the Dalai Lama secured an annual subsidy of $180,000. According to the news report, quoting the Tibetan government-in-exile, the funds allocated for the resistance movement were spent on training volunteers and paying for guerrilla operations against the Chinese and the Dalai Lama spent his subsidy on setting up offices in Geneva and New York and on international lobbying.

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Despite Chinese protests, President Obama has met with the Dalai Lama twice before, in 2010 and 2011.  Tibet is a part of China since the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). China considers the Dalai Lama; a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who seeks to use violent methods to establish an independent Tibet but the US is oblivious to Chinese sentiments and continues to support Tibetan dissidents. If only for a moment, the US would consider what would be its own reaction if the Chinese government hosted US dissidents like PFC Bradley Edward Manning, (now known as Chelsea Elizabeth Manning after a gender change), a US Army soldier, who was convicted in July 2013 of violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses, after divulging classified documents to WikiLeaks and causing major embarrassment to the US Government and possibly aiding and abetting the enemy with the release of top secret military information.

If the Chinese top leadership had been callous enough to host Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee and National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, whose massive security leaks to several media outlets have rocked various capitals and put the US government on the mat, the US would have known where the shoe pinches. Snowden’s leaked documents commencing from June 5, 2013, disclosed operational details of a clandestine global surveillance network run by the NSA and are considered the most significant leak in US history by Pentagon Papers exposé by Daniel Ellsberg. Snowden’s disclosure rattled US relations with various European heads of state.

After his meeting with President Obama, in which the White House reaffirmed his support for Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions and human rights for Tibetans, Dalai Lama is expected to undertake a two weeks’ talking tour of the US. He has already granted an interview to a US publication Time magazine (week ending March 3, 2014), in which the Tibetan spiritual leader is critical of the Chinese President Xi Jinping and has asked him to do more for the rural population in China, to discontinue censorship and uplift the Chinese judicial system, claiming that it is not up to the international standard of judiciary systems.

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President Obama has chosen to irritate China at a sensitive time, causing it to doubt his sincerity in improving Sino-US relations. He is embarking on a “strategic US political and security rebalancing toward Asia” by undertaking a week-long visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines in late April. At a time when Japan has deliberately undertaken steps to irk Chinese sentiments, the tour will give credence to reports of all the ports of call of President Obama during his Asian sojourn rekindling issues in the South China Sea at the urging of the US.

President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama was not confined to exchange of niceties. As a sequel to the talks, further sullying the waters, US Secretary of State John Kerry named one of his officials, Under Secretary Sarah Sewall, as a special coordinator for Tibetan Issues.

The US would be better served to engage China in a commitment to a constructive relationship and endeavour to solve regional and global problems together, rather than stepping on China’s toes.