Any change in U.S. policy toward the Dalai Lama will encourage bad behavior in Beijing. By Paula J. Dobriansky.
When President Obama didn't meet with the Dalai Lama during his October trip to Washington, it gave many the impression that human-rights promotion was not central to this administration's foreign policy. This impression needs to be promptly corrected. While the U.S. accepts that Tibet is part of the People's Republic of China, for decades our country has supported Tibetan autonomy, especially in culture and religion. If the U.S. were to step back from this position, increased Chinese repression of Tibetans would likely follow.
Such repression would also have adverse consequences for China. A China that engages in harsh repression is incapable of ensuring domestic stability. An oppressive China is also unable to function as a responsible global player—something that the U.S. has long sought to encourage.
The view that repression in Tibet would have negative consequences for China is shared by our European allies. As British Foreign Minister David Miliband has said: "Like every other EU member state and the United States, we regard Tibet as part of the People's Republic of China. Our interest is in long-term stability, which can only be achieved through respect for human rights and greater autonomy for the Tibetans."
Contrary to the oft-repeated, but erroneous claims to the contrary, the U.S. commitment to Tibet—which began during the Nixon administration—has not harmed U.S.-Chinese relations. The overarching principle for both China and America has been stability and consistency. Any alteration of America's long-standing policy toward Tibet would prompt the opposite result.
It would certainly not earn us any lasting gratitude from Beijing. Any rebalancing of American policy toward China would most likely cause the Chinese to conclude that the U.S.—beset by an economic crisis—is retrenching from many of its traditional commitments and can't be counted on to pursue robust policies across a range of international issues. If China were to reach such a conclusion, it would be inclined to be less helpful to the U.S. on such issues as Iran, North Korea or even economic cooperation.
The U.S.-China relationship continues to grow in importance and complexity. This fall, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner co-chaired a key bilateral forum—the Strategic and Economic Dialogue—that was established to address at the senior level a range of key issues, including the economy and the environment.
As progress is being made on all of these matters, the Obama administration should call for substantive dialogue between Beijing and the Dalai Lama's envoys. President Obama should meet with the Dalai Lama when he comes to Washington in February and publicly appeal to China's leaders to let the Dalai Lama make a pilgrimage to China.
The meeting should also be used as an opportunity to showcase practical ideas that would benefit all of China's citizens, including Tibetans. One excellent example of such an idea is tackling the massive environmental degradation in Tibet. Setting up a environmental committee—as has been urged by the Dalai Lama—would be a good place to start.
While U.S. support for Tibet is usually defended on moral grounds, this an issue where idealism and realism are aligned. A balanced policy toward China that features continued U.S. support for the cause of Tibetan autonomy is both doable and necessary. It has been tackled successfully during the last two administrations, and President Obama should continue to build upon this record.
Ms. Dobriansky is a former under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs and special coordinator on Tibetan issues.