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)