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)

5 Responses to “Analyzing Obama’s summit statement on Tibet”

  1. T. Wayne Fox says:

    Mr. President: Please give back your Nobel Peace Prize, by placating the Central Government of China in its ongoing policy of genocide against Tibetans you show that you are not man of peace but one full of cowardice and hatred. You are the Neville Chamberlain of this Century – while you preach peace in our times. The Chinese will continue to destroy Tibetans in the same way the Nazis,destroyed, Jews, gays, Jehovah’s Witness and those with mental illness. May God have mercy on your soul.

  2. Melissa Taveras says:

    President Obama is just what China needed in a US president…docile, submissive and willing to turn a blind eye.
    I am looking forward to the 2012 election season.
    What a sad travesty that America has chosen trade, money and economy over human lives. This is a sad piece of history that will be remembered forever.

    ~Melissa

  3. Linda Hoyt says:

    I truly wish Mr. Obama would receive His Holiness and not bow to the Chinese and yet I understand the economic situation (we owe China a lot of $$) and Mr. Obama seems to have more than enough already on his plate – all the messes GWB left behind, not to mention the corporate raiders who are raping our economy and country and care not a whit so long as they can continue to exploit the system and line their pockets.

  4. Rajagopal says:

    What President Barack Obama intended in his statement ” we recognize that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China” and what the media and the analists define it as has no meaning for Tibet.
    This statement has made China consolidate its position in tibet and need not care for anu other nation or group of nations that are supporting Tibet.
    The ground reality is as it stands ” the mighty US has buckled infront of Hu Jintao.
    Probably Mr. Obama was flabbergasted after the fabulous welcome arranged by Chinese rulers – or probably Mr. Obama was too worried about thec rumbling Economy of US and he did not want China to tighten their purse strings.
    In my opinion the later is more closer reason than nay other analysis.
    Human rights ia nothing more than amention is passing.
    So in summing up it can be clearly seen that the president of the mighty US is nothing more than a overfed Mouse.

  5. Ngawang C. Drakmargyapon says:

    But the question is why Tibet featured in the Joint Statement as Tibet or His Holiness as never featured in such statement, for example, EU-PRC Summit Statements.

    By this Joint Statement PRC has officially accepted in writing that the Tibetan side on the Sino-Tibetan talks is led by Representative of H.H. The Dalai Lama.

    Of course, if the Obama Team is fully aware of the Tibet Issue, then there was no need for languages, like “any concerns and differences.”

    On the whole, PRC is happy with the first part of the para while the Administration and TGIE will digest the later parts.

    Now, the ? is when His Holiness will be received by President Obama?

    Ngawang

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