Beijing has taken the same approach to criticism from abroad over its handling of Tibet, significantly raising the stakes by identifying Tibet as a "core interest." Beijing has given notice that unless the world adopts a "correct understanding" of Tibet by spurning any view contrary to the Communist Party line, there will be consequences for bilateral relations and it will be difficult for China to cooperate on the global economic recovery or other issues.
Washington has bent under the pressure. President Obama refused to schedule a meeting with the Dalai Lama until after his November 2009 visit to Beijing, although he did speak about Tibet there. Afterward, U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Jon Huntsman adopted Beijing's line, stating that the president's meeting with the Dalai Lama, and recent U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, had "trampled on a couple of China's core interests." These actions have serious implications for U.S. support for Tibet, for activists for freedom inside China, and the Dalai Lama and his democratic government in exile.
Often, when Chinese officials present their position on Tibet, senior U.S. officials cede ground by saying nothing publicly. Indeed, the words "Tibet" and "Dalai Lama" have gradually disappeared from the administration's vocabulary. Washington's official statements about the April earthquake in Yushu, an area that is 97% Tibetan, did not refer to Tibetans or Tibet.
The silence was even more troubling at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, major talks the U.S. and China held in Beijing in May. State Councilor Dai Binguo presented China's view on Tibet in his remarks at a joint session but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not respond or mention Tibet publicly. It was left to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, to state the U.S. position.
At a routine press briefing several days later, State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley deflected a question about the way Tibet was handled during the talks, saying "It's hard for me from halfway around the world to describe everything we discussed," despite having just given remarks on the U.S. positions on Burma and North Korea presented during the S&ED.
The silence of the Obama administration is peculiar since U.S. policy on Tibet is clear. Spelled out in the Tibet Policy Act, it supports, among other things, talks between the Dalai Lama and Beijing and respect for Tibetans' human rights and religious, linguistic and cultural heritage.
Past administrations have faithfully carried out this policy. The 2009 annual report on negotiations between Beijing and the Dalai Lama, required under the Act, recounts extensive contacts about Tibet between President George W. Bush and General Secretary Hu Jintao as well as between Chinese interlocutors and other American officials, such as the coordinator for Tibetan affairs, a position first created by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
The current Tibet coordinator, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Maria Otero, was not included in the giant U.S. delegation to the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Her predecessor in the post, Paula Dobriansky, traveled to China four times and met with the Dalai Lama 13 times. The 2010 report, due in March, was only submitted to Congress on Wednesday.
The administration's downplaying of Tibet undermines Chinese liberal intellectuals and activists who have criticized Beijing's policies on Tibet at great risk to themselves. After the March 2008 uprising, a Chinese think tank called the Open Constitution Initiative issued a report challenging Beijing's position that the riots were incited by the Dalai Lama and criticizing the crackdown that followed. This organization was later shut down and its staff harassed.
In addition, 29 intellectuals, lawyers and activists signed an open letter in March 2008 supporting dialogue with the Dalai Lama and urging and end to official propaganda vilifying him and Tibetans. One of them, Liu Xiaobo was later prosecuted on subversion charges for his writings and sentenced to jail for 11 years.
American officials should know by now that nothing is gained by acquiescing to China's overbearing behavior on Tibet or any other issue. Adapting to Beijing's "correct understanding" of Tibet undermines not only the Dalai Lama and human rights for Tibetans, but also America's own "core interest" in seeing these respected in Tibet and China as well. To be credible, America must clearly and publicly pursue a well-established policy on Tibet.
Ellen Bork, Foreign Policy Initiative
Ms. Bork is director of democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative.