Now that President Barack Obama has ended his maiden East Asia visit, it is time to start reading the tea leaves concerning his reference to Tibet during the joint press appearance/press conference in Beijing on November 17.
First of all, here is what the President said publicly as can be seen from the media video footage below. I am yet to see the transcript on the White House website.
“I spoke to President Hu about America’s bedrock beliefs that all men and women possess certain fundamental human rights. We do not believe that these principles are unique to America but rather they are universal rights and that they should be available to all peoples, to all ethnic and religious minorities. We did note that while we recognise that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China the United States supports the 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.”
If you read this in conjunction with what Ambassador Jeff Bader, White House Senior Asia Director, said in a subsequent media briefing on the same day, you might begin to get some flavor. Ambassador Bader said,
“They discussed Tibet. The President — you saw in the joint press conference, the President referred — the joint press conference, the President referred explicitly to the importance of protection of freedom of religion and the rights of ethnic minorities, and then immediately discussed the importance of a resumption of a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and representatives — the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese government. That was a deliberate and a clear statement of the priority the President places on this, and it was discussed privately, as well — the President making clear his respect for the Dalai Lama as a cultural and religious leader, and his intention to meet with the Dalai Lama at an appropriate time.”
The tea leaves show that there are three things to note. On the positive side, President Obama has publicly affirmed his interest in seeing not merely a “resumption” of the dialogue between the Tibetans and the Chinese but one that will “resolve any concerns and differences that the two sides may have.”
Secondly, Ambassador Bader has said in another media quote that the President spoke very strongly on “human rights” in the private meetings. I would assume that this would mean Tibet figured in that, too. It could be that the United States may have offered initiatives that could encourage the Chinese to move forward in the dialogue process with H.H. the Dalai Lama’s envoys.
Thirdly, the United States has made clear its position on the President meeting His Holiness saying he had made it clear (to the Chinese I assume) “his intention to meet with the Dalai Lama at an appropriate time.” This is important because of the negative perception that a non-meeting in October between the two created in the public and the media.
I look at the Beijing statement as the beginning of the process on the US approach to Tibet. Now the challenge for the Obama Administration is to see what approach it intends to take to back its “support” for the Tibetan-Chinese dialogue process. The statement in Beijing could be and should be the tip of the iceberg of a new strategy. It is also a challenge to the Tibet Movement in the United States to make the Administration to follow up on this.
The tea leaves also show one negative point in the Tibet reference. The negative is not just because President Obama said, “we recognise that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China” as loosely this is more or less the position of the United States Government. It is negative because of the perception it has created and the way the Chinese have taken advantage of this in strengthening its political strategy on Tibet. Even Xinhua quoted it spreading it far and wide to say as if this is a new position of the United States (to be fair to Xinhua, it did also report on the President calling for the resumption of dialogue part). Many people ask what need was there for our President to offer it unilaterally in Beijing?