Another Useless Foreign Policy Gesture?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on October 6, 2009

Barack Obama is going to play nice with the Chinese by postponing a meeting with the Dalai Lama until after the President is able to meet with Hu Jintao next month. As the Washington Post puts it:

For the first time since 1991, the Tibetan spiritual leader will visit Washington this week and not meet with the president. Since 1991, he has been here 10 times. Most times the meetings have been “drop-in” visits at the White House. The last time he was here, in 2007, however, George W. Bush became the first sitting president to meet with him publicly, at a ceremony at the Capitol in which he awarded the Dalai Lama the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’s highest civilian award.

Daniel Blumenthal, from whom I got the WaPo link, makes the key point:

“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.

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