President Barack Obama again welcomed the Dalai Lama to the White House, and again the Chinese government has expressed its displeasure about the meeting. In a statement issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry and read by spokeswoman Hua Chunying, the Dalai Lama is called a “political exile who has long been engaged in anti-China separatist activities under the cloak of religion.” The statement also notes that this meeting constitutes a gross interference in China’s internal affairs and a serious violation of the norms that govern international relations. The statement adds that the the meeting will “severely impair China-U.S. relations.”
While not completely giving in to pressure from China to cancel the meeting altogether, the White House did show sensitivity towards Sino-U.S. relations in several ways. Prior to the engagement a statement issued by the White House said that the Dalai Lama was not being met as a political figure but rather “in his capacity as an internationally respected religious and cultural figure.” Also, the meeting was held in the Map Room of the White House as opposed to the Oval Office, which is the usual location foreign leaders are received. And lastly, press coverage was not allowed in the hour-long meeting.
Meetings between the U.S. President and the 78-year-old monk have a strong precedent. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, there have been at least 12 meetings between U.S. presidents and the Dalai Lama since 1991. Attempts by China to thwart these meetings also have a strong precedent, and they were conceded to in 2009 when President Obama canceled a scheduled meeting with the Dalai Lama, which caused some to accuse the President of appeasing China. Before today, however, President Obama had met with His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama in 2010 as well as 2011.
With regard to today’s meeting, a statement has been issued from the White House’s Office of the Press Secretary that says the President “reiterated the U.S. position that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China and that the United States does not support Tibet independence.” The statement also says that the Dalai Lama noted he was “not seeking independence for Tibet.” The President praised the Dalai Lama’s commitment to peace and nonviolence and expressed support for the “Middle Way” approach in the statement as well.
The Middle-Way approach, as defined by the Dalai Lama, means that “the Tibetan people do not accept the present status of Tibet under the People’s Republic of China,” but they do not seek independence for Tibet either. The Middle Way is a term rich in connotation, and in the context of Buddhism it can generally be defined as “actions or attitudes that will create happiness for oneself and others.” Another name for Buddhism itself is the Middle Way, which indicates a reconciliation and transcendence of opposing views and extremes.
The White House seems, too, to be trying to follow a Middle Way. The statement issued today is the same in many aspects as the one issued for Obama’s 2011 meeting with the Dalai Lama. Some parts are nearly a word-for-word copy, for example in the 2011 the statement notes that the U.S. policy position is that “Tibet is a part of the People’s Republic of China and the United States does not support independence for Tibet.” The Middle Way of Sino-U.S. relations seems to be a delicate dance with the following maneuvers: A Dalai Lama-U.S. President meeting is announced, and that sparks anger from the Chinese government. The meeting occurs, and in turn is followed by a White House statement that says the U.S. does not support independence for Tibet (and that the Dalai Lama does not want independence for Tibet).
By Donna Westlund