China is once again criticizing President Obama’s diplomacy with the Dalai Lama, along with his upcoming tour of Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and the Philippines, and his general tone toward their territorial expansion in the South China Sea. What, we might ask, does a regular annual or semi-annual visit with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader have to do with Chinese territorial policies in the middle of a sea far from land-locked Tibet? After all, the aging Tibetan guru has long since disavowed demands for Tibetan political independence in favor of simple Tibetan spiritual and cultural autonomy.
The answer to such a question is more complex than it might seem at first glance.
The problem has to do with two main points. The first is that the U.S. seems to be done with the cautious diplomatic approach regarding China’s territorial disputes. Previous to 2014, President Obama has shown an openness and a willingness to deal with China despite signs of increasing expansionism. When the president, however, recently announced an upcoming tour of the nations surrounding the South and East China seas–but, glaringly obvious, not including a visit to China until much later in the year; November to be exact—China reacted unfavorably.
From the comments made by Chinese officials after the announcement, it seems that China is beginning to feel a change in U.S. attitudes, one markedly devoid of the previously conciliatory tones that led Obama to delay a previous meeting with the Dalai Lama and to take a diplomatic line with China in its territorial tussles in the South and East China Seas.
This recently-announced April visit to the four most decisive nations bordering the disputed seas has provoked angry comment from China that the U.S. is siding with the other side in their claims, to the detriment of U.S.-Chinese relations. Previous to the announcement of the upcoming tour, Obama’s administration has criticized the use of the so-called ‘nine-dash-line’, a line of demarcation debated between the People’s Republic of China (PRC), including Taiwan, and neighboring nations such as Viet Nam, the Philippines and Malaysia among others.
This demarcation, which includes disputed Chinese claims such as the Spratly and Paracel Islands, makes up a U-shaped line that accounts for much of the mineral wealth and oil in the area. When it was published in 1947 the line contained eleven dots, though two dots in the Gulf of Tonkin were removed in 1949. The Philippines, Viet Nam and Malaysia filed protests over the territories claimed by China when the PRC published the demarcation with the UN in 2009.
The nations disputing the line claim that it is an illegal boundary, a breach of the international laws published in UNCLOS (United Nations Convention of the Laws of the Sea). The U.S. began showing signs of taking a harder line against Chinese expansion when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined in the debate by stating that in respect of international law, the U.S. supports the needs of all nations to have open access to “maritime commons.”
Despite the fact that the PRC has not yet used the nine-dash-line as a sovereign border, accusations followed that China was beginning to take possibly a too-aggressive tack regarding these maritime commons. The disagreement deepened with China’s establishment of an “air defense identification zone” in the East China Sea, a move the U.S. decried as militaristic and “provocative” according to Evan Madeiros, the Asia director at the White House national security council.
With the recent change in diplomatic tone from the U.S. toward China, President Obama’s decision to meet with the Dalai Lama over the PRC’s usual objections takes on greater ramifications. Ties of economic interdependence between China and the U.S. have kept the two countries speaking softly and searching for common ground for a long time, but the U.S. seems to be taking a harder line with Beijing of late.
In this altered climate, the longstanding cordial relationship between Obama and the Dalai Lama appears to be more threatening to Chinese interests; especially as it comes at the same time as the president chooses to exclude China from his upcoming tour whilst visiting four of the most vocal nations currently debating the South and East China seas against Chinese expansion.
By Kat Turner
The Japan News