Dalai Lama, Obama and the People’s Republic of China

Yash Ghai

The exceedingly cautious Obama has been taken to task by the Chinese Government. Attacking him for meeting with the Dalai Lama, the Government says that he has "seriously interfered in Chinese internal affairs, seriously hurt the national feelings of the Chinese people and seriously undermined China-US relations". Poor Obama!

He did everything to assuage the Chinese. He refused to see Lama before his own visit to Beijing, lest it send Beijing into paroxysms. After his largely unproductive China visit, Obama met the Tibetan leader in as low a key as possible—no Oval Office for the Lama, entry through the back door, kept out of the sight of journalists, no subsequent press conference (what a contrast to that horrible George Bush who welcomed him in 2007 with pomp, conferred a Congressional Gold Medal on him, and arranged for him to speak to a joint session of the Congress).

Got off

Still, Obama got off lightly, compared to Chris Patten who, after the betrayal of the Hong Kong people by the redoubtable Margaret Thatcher, the defender of the Falklands, tried belatedly to sow the seeds of democracy. He was called the "prostitute of a thousand years" (and this was by no means the prize epithet hurled at him as the last British governor of Hong Kong). Obama also did better than Lama, who was attacked as "traitor" and "splittist" ("splittist" is sometimes better and sometimes worse than "prostitute"; it depends on the context).

Several questions arise. What is the fuss about? China claims that Tibet is an integral part of China and Lama is promoting its secession. The basis of Chinese claim is dubious. In centuries gone by, Tibetan leaders acknowledged the suzerainty of Beijing, just as did other Asian states now fully sovereign, by sending tribute periodically. But Tibet ran its own affairs for centuries.

At best China’s claims are in the finest traditions of colonialism, imperium over a people with its own traditions of rule, and its distinctive culture, language, religion and world outlook.

The word self-determination, connoting an internationally recognised right of a people to self-government, sends Beijing into a fit. It scorns the doctrine that a state loses its moral and legal claim to territory if it treats the people with such oppression as China has treated Tibetans.

If the Chinese version of history and sovereignty is justified, India could legitimately claim sovereignty over a large part of South and South East Asia; Austria and Turkey over a considerable part of Europe and West Asia; and white settlers in the Americas and Australasia would have to pack their suitcases for a return journey to Europe.

Lama renounced demands for independence, long ago. Two years ago Lama proposed relatively modest arrangements for autonomy — the preservation of Tibetan culture and a measure of local democracy — fully within the framework of the Chinese constitution which promises a large measure of autonomy to ethnic minorities.

The Chinese reaction was to pour scorn on the proposals, misrepresenting what Lama had requested, and labelling it "splittist". The fact is for some years now, Beijing has shown no pre-disposition to negotiate, preferring to show Tibetan negotiators the Great Wall and the Xian terracotta soldiers.

Back to Obama and the West. If Beijing is tested by the Tibetan claims, so is the West, led by the US. During the Cold War, the West was all too keen to incite the Tibetans to secession. Everywhere Lama went, he was given red carpet treatment leading him to believe the West would support his campaign for independence.

With the emergence of China as the source of lucrative contracts and investments, the West found the Tibetan issue tedious and embarrassing. Now Lama’s advisers have to cajole, and even beg, for visits by him, and are often rebuffed . No one reasonably thinks that there is any significance in Lama’s meeting with Obama, least of all China despite the rhetoric, as the President ponders other strategies to deal with friend and foe in Beijing.

The writer is a constitutional law expert.