Analyzing Obama’s summit statement on Tibet

On Monday, November 23, 2009, in Recent, by Todd Stein
Nearly a week has passed since the Obama-Hu summit in Beijing, which provides the opportunity for further review and analysis of their joint press statement and its significance for Tibet. First, you should read my colleague Bhuchung Tsering’s reading of the tea leaves, three positively and one negatively, in the statement, posted on the ICT site. Bhuchung touches on perhaps the most eyebrow-raising aspect of President Obama’s statement, where he said, “we recognize that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China.” On the one hand, this is merely a re-statement of the long-standing U.S. position, under administrations of both parties, going back to the three U.S.-China joint communiqués and the State Department 1987 statement on Tibet's status. Even though it earned a headline on Xinhua, this formulation does not represent a change in U.S. policy toward Tibet. Look at the words chosen. Obama said “part of the People’s Republic of China,” not “China.” Prior to the summit, Chinese officials let it be known that they wanted Obama to say “Tibet is part of Chinese territory.” Beijing would have used that opportunity to claim U.S. endorsement of their position that Tibet has always been a part of China. By using “PRC,” Obama keeps the U.S. agnostic on Tibet’s pre-1959 status, which has relevance for the Tibetan-Chinese dialogue. Some commentators have portrayed this utterance as “Tibet thrown under the bus,” which happens to be the title of an op-ed today by William Triplett, former chief Republican counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kelley Currie, who worked in the office of the Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues in the Bush Administration, assesses that it was “a concession to a very specific and intensely-sought Chinese demand for this trip” and as “a cheap bargaining chip in a futile attempt to curry favor with the Chinese.” But others amenable to the under-the-bus analogy could argue that Tibet had already been thrown there by the last U.S. President to visit China. Recall what President Bush said, in Beijing for the Olympics, in response to a question on Tibet: “we disagree with [Chinese leaders] on things, and that's the way the relationship is going to be.” If Beijing saw in Obama an opening for its aggressive demands on Tibet, it’s hard to argue that the door wasn’t already opened by his predecessor. The key question is why Obama said it. In smart diplomacy, you don’t offer something unless you get something else in return. Obama officials will argue they conceded nothing since it merely re-states policy. So why mention it at all? Did they request something in return? As Bhuchung notes, White House officials indicated Obama brought up Tibet in some detail with Hu, and was “more forceful behind closed doors.” One can hope that any trade-off for the status remark was within the Tibet/human rights context, perhaps about the dialogue, and not for something unrelated. Obama offered his support for “an early resumption of dialogue between the Chinese government and the representatives of the Dalai Lama to resolve any concerns and differences that the two sides may have.” The use of “early” and “resolve” are helpful in shaping the U.S. expectation. On more than one occasion, the Obama Administration has clearly indicated its desire that the talks be focused toward meaningful results. The statement takes a turn toward the passive, however, with the phrase, “any concerns and differences the two sides may have.” President Obama and his senior advisors came into office with more knowledge on the Tibet issue than any administration before. They know exactly the concerns and differences that the sides do (not may) have. So why the coyness? Is it part of a strategy where they don’t want to be seen as dictating terms to the two sides? Hands-off impartiality is not the approach they are using with the Israelis and Palestinians, a huge U.S. priority for sure, but a conflict no less intractable or long standing. If President Obama truly wants the Chinese and Tibetans to sit down at the negotiating table and expects results from it, does he have a strategy for moving it there? What resources is he willing to commit to this goal? Of course, ICT is not without its guidance on this point. In a letter to President Obama, the ICT Board recommended two specific initiatives: an offer of assistance to the Chinese government and the representatives of the Dalai Lama in defining a common goal for their dialogue, and an invitation for the Dalai Lama to visit China. From the non-meeting during the Dalai Lama’s D.C. visit to the substance in his summit statement (not to mention a reputation for being a results-oriented leader), President Obama has raised expectations that his Administration has a strategy for real progress on Tibet. Now that his relationship with Beijing has its official commencement, we will be watching to see when Obama’s approach moves to “deeds and not simply words.Photo Caption: U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao after they meet the press at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 17, 2009. (Xinhua/Li Xueren)

Reading the tea leaves on President Obama’s Tibet statement in Beijing

On Monday, November 23, 2009, in Recent, by Bhuchung K. Tsering
Now that President Barack Obama has ended his maiden East Asia visit, it is time to start reading the tea leaves concerning his reference to Tibet during the joint press appearance/press conference in Beijing on November 17. First of all, here is what the President said publicly as can be seen from the media video footage below. I am yet to see the transcript on the White House website.

“I spoke to President Hu about America’s bedrock beliefs that all men and women possess certain fundamental human rights. We do not believe that these principles are unique to America but rather they are universal rights and that they should be available to all peoples, to all ethnic and religious minorities. We did note that while we recognise that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China the United States supports the early resumption of dialogue between the Chinese government and the representatives of the Dalai Lama to resolve any concerns and differences that the two sides may have.”

If you read this in conjunction with what Ambassador Jeff Bader, White House Senior Asia Director, said in a subsequent media briefing on the same day, you might begin to get some flavor. Ambassador Bader said,

“They discussed Tibet. The President — you saw in the joint press conference, the President referred — the joint press conference, the President referred explicitly to the importance of protection of freedom of religion and the rights of ethnic minorities, and then immediately discussed the importance of a resumption of a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and representatives — the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese government. That was a deliberate and a clear statement of the priority the President places on this, and it was discussed privately, as well — the President making clear his respect for the Dalai Lama as a cultural and religious leader, and his intention to meet with the Dalai Lama at an appropriate time.”

The tea leaves show that there are three things to note. On the positive side, President Obama has publicly affirmed his interest in seeing not merely a “resumption” of the dialogue between the Tibetans and the Chinese but one that will “resolve any concerns and differences that the two sides may have.” Secondly, Ambassador Bader has said in another media quote that the President spoke very strongly on “human rights” in the private meetings. I would assume that this would mean Tibet figured in that, too. It could be that the United States may have offered initiatives that could encourage the Chinese to move forward in the dialogue process with His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s envoys. Thirdly, the United States has made clear its position on the President meeting His Holiness saying he had made it clear (to the Chinese I assume) “his intention to meet with the Dalai Lama at an appropriate time.” This is important because of the negative perception that a non-meeting in October between the two created in the public and the media. I look at the Beijing statement as the beginning of the process on the US approach to Tibet. Now the challenge for the Obama Administration is to see what approach it intends to take to back its “support” for the Tibetan-Chinese dialogue process. The statement in Beijing could be and should be the tip of the iceberg of a new strategy. It is also a challenge to the Tibet Movement in the United States to make the Administration to follow up on this. The tea leaves also show one negative point in the Tibet reference. The negative is not just because President Obama said, “we recognise that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China” as loosely this is more or less the position of the United States Government. It is negative because of the perception it has created and the way the Chinese have taken advantage of this in strengthening its political strategy on Tibet. Even Xinhua quoted it spreading it far and wide to say as if this is a new position of the United States (to be fair to Xinhua, it did also report on the President calling for the resumption of dialogue part). Many people ask what need was there for our President to offer it unilaterally in Beijing?

Report from the World Parliamentary Convention on Tibet

On Friday, November 20, 2009, in Recent, by Todd Stein
I am on my way back from attending the 5th World Parliamentary Convention on Tibet (WPCT) in Rome. Let me share some observations. First, we must remember how busy the job of a member of parliament is. Given all the demands on them, it was energizing to see 133 legislators and associates from 30 countries devote the time to travel to and participate in this conference. While some parliaments were not represented due to legislative session (such as the U.S., UK and Germany), participants (with ICT's support) will work to ensure they are briefed on the outcome. A letter of support from U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was read at the conference. Second, there is a reason they came: their desire to do something concrete for Tibet. The WPCT agenda was substantive and informative, as was the participants' engagement. I can't help but contrast this event to the experience of parliamentary delegations to Tibet, who report to us that their Chinese handlers fill their agenda with sightseeing tours and staid meetings with party officials armed with standard talking points, where "discussions" are mostly give and minimal take. Some parliamentarians at the convention, such as Lord Steel (read his report here), reported on their travels in Tibet. Third, there was serious interest in ensuring that the convention produce deliverables to help parliamentarians advocate for and collaborate on Tibet. You can read the Rome Declaration adopted by the 5th WPCT at: Please note the last item in the declaration, which pledges to establish an interparliamentarians network for Tibet, with a secretariat to provide resources and facilitate information sharing. There was much talk at the convention about how legislators can adopt "best practices" from fellow parliaments, both in the policy and programmatic realms. Creation and sustainment of this network with be key in helping parliamentarians reach the goals they identified. Fourth, I was struck by not only the geographical range of the participants (from El Salvador to South Africa to Estonia to Tuva in the Russian Federation), but also by the thirst of the parliamentarians in these regions, where Tibet movements are nascent but growing), for help in building capacity in their governments for Tibet. ICT, a co-organizer of the WPCT, will do what we can to facilitate these efforts, building on our experience of working with parliaments in Europe and North America, and coordinating with Tibet support groups around the world. Photo Caption: His Holiness the Dalai Lama addressing the 5th World Parliamentarian Convention on Tibet in Rome, 18 November 2009. (

Chinese Survey Finds Interesting Tibetan Feelings on Obama and the Dalai Lama

On Monday, November 16, 2009, in Recent, by Bhuchung K. Tsering
As President Obama spends his first night in Beijing on Monday, an official Chinese government website (in Tibetan) on Tibet has an online poll where it has posed a series of six questions on President Obama and the Dalai Lama. The questions ranged from views on the US policy on Tibet to what should China do if President Obama meets the Dalai Lama after this current China visit. Interestingly, an overwhelming number of respondents have voted on those choices that are not the current position of the Chinese government, thus reflecting the fact that the Tibetan people have a different perspective. (This is more interesting in the light of the fact that the Chinese language version of the poll on the same website has respondents choosing positions that are closer to the official stand.) Since it is an official Chinese website it is accessible within China and Tibet and my assumption is that most of the respondents in both the languages are from there. As this seems to be an ongoing poll for today, the numbers may have changed from those mentioned below when I saw it on Monday morning American time. On the topical issue of feelings on “The Dalai not being able to meet Obama during his US Visit,” (a reference to President Obama and the Dalai Lama not meeting during the latter’s Washington, D.C., visit in October), 55 percent of the respondents have chosen the response b): ‘This is a foreign policy strategy by Obama,” while 37 percent have chosen a): “The Dalai Lama has become a desperate individual dependent on others.” Only 8 percent have chosen c): “Obama has respected China.” On the view sought, “If Obama meets the Dalai after the visit to China,” only 4 percent chose a): “Totally Protest” while a vast majority of 87 percent chose b): “Suggest that the Chinese Government should pay great attention to this.” Nine percent of the respondents chose c): “No View.” On seeking views on “What should China do if Obama meets Dalai” 91 percent of respondents have chosen c): “Need to conduct full exchange of views between the two sides.” Five percent have chosen a): “Need to stop it”, 2 percent have chosen b): “Totally protest” and 1 percent has chosen d): “No views.” On the overall issue, “From your perspective, the Obama Administration’s policy on Tibetan issue is,” 66 percent of respondents have chosen b): “a possible slight shift” while 34 percent have chosen a): “Similar to that of other governments’ as developed through history.” On the question, “Your views on the United States President Obama’s first visit to China,” 85 percent have chosen a): "Waiting eagerly" while 15 percent have chosen b): "No views."