China Is Upset About The Dalai Lama's Visit, But Is It Anything New?

President Obama met with the Dalai Lama earlier today to discuss the need to protect the human rights, culture, and religion of Tibet. In a statement released from the White House, the president commended the Dalai Lama's "Middle Way" approach and his commitment to nonviolence. The president and the Dalai Lama also agreed on the importance of maintaining a positive and cooperative relationship between the U.S. and China.

Obama's meeting did not deviate much from those of past presidents. Since 1991, every U.S. president has met with the Dalai Lama in an informal capacity. While the Dalai Lama has never been received as a formal head of state, the Chinese government still reacted angrily to every meeting. In 2007, President George. W. Bush's high-profile appearance at the Congressional Medal of Freedom ceremony honoring the Dalai Lama solicited a particularly harsh response from Beijing. It was the first instance in which a U.S. president met with the Dalai Lama in a public setting.

Last fall, Obama postponed a meeting with the Dalai Lama in consideration of his upcoming visit to China. The decision was cast as a purely strategic move, but Obama experienced some backlash from human rights activists and supporters in the U.S. "Tibet is a sacred and idealized place in the American imagination," explains Allen Carlson, a professor of government at Cornell University. "When Obama delayed the meeting in October, he took a fair amount of flack for that. He didn't have a lot of choice in meeting with the Dalai Lama or not. What would he gain domestically by looking weak on an issue that has so much resonance with the American people?"

The Obama administration carefully orchestrated the visit to show respect for the Dalai Lama while not infuriating Beijing. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs repeatedly stated that the Dalai Lama was being received as an "internationally respected religious leader and spokesman for Tibetan rights." Obama met with the Dalai Lama in the Map Room of the White House rather than the Oval Office, which is reserved for meetings with formal heads of state. The two convened in private without members of the press. Rather than make a joint public appearance, an official photo of the two leaders will be released. After the meeting, the Dalai Lama addressed reporters outside of the White House and reaffirmed his admiration for the U.S. as a "champion of democracy, freedom, and human values."

The Chinese government already expressed its dissatisfaction over the meeting. Last week, Ma Zhaoxu, a spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated, "China resolutely opposes the visit by the Dalai Lama to the United States, and resolutely opposes U.S. leaders having contact with the Dalai Lama." Beijing considers the Dalai Lama a "splittist" who threatens the nation's sovereignty and has exiled the leader since 1959. As Xu Xin, adjunct associate professor of government and director of the China and Asia Pacific Studies Program at Cornell University, explains, "The Chinese government has identified the Tibet issue as a core national interest, similar to Taiwan. The issue of sovereignty and territorial integrity means so much for the legitimacy of the Community Party."

The U.S. and China have suffered through a series of tensions in recent months, including the U.S. $6-billion arms sales package to Taiwan, Google China threatening to pull out of the country, and disagreements at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen.  

Experts differ in their views on the impact of today's meeting. Banning Garrett, director of the Asia Program at The Atlantic Council of the United States, does not think the meeting will have a negative long-term impact on U.S.-China relations, but may contribute to more tension in the short-term. "China may be publicly less cooperative on international issues, such as climate change and Iran, but those issues are also very much in China's own national interest. The Chinese government doesn't have a lot of room for punitive action," Garrett explains. In contrast, a New York Times article cites China experts predicting that "Chinese President Hu Jintao might retaliate for Mr. Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama by canceling his planned visit to Washington in April." Professor Xu agrees this could be a risk: "In the past, China could only protest verbally against American involvement. But now and in the future, it's more likely China will take stronger action, to let the American government know they have to pay a price for their actions on China's core national issues." Professor Carlson adds, "If the Chinese go so far as to cancel Hu Jintao's trip in April, then it is an indication that Tibet is not only an issue of great importance but also one in which China has the leverage and stature to push the U.S."