WASHINGTON – A decision by Barack Obama to postpone his first meeting as president with the Dalai Lama is overshadowing a visit to Washington this week by the exiled Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader.
The Dalai Lama arrived Monday in Washington and will be received by prominent U.S. lawmakers and the U.S. coordinator for Tibet. But the focus for many in China, Tibet and the United States is the president’s decision not to meet with the Dalai Lama until after Obama visits Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing in November.
The Dalai Lama has met with the last three sitting U.S. presidents during his visits to Washington. But this week’s trip comes at a delicate time for a new U.S. administration looking to improve relations with Beijing and win Chinese support for crucial foreign policy, economic and environmental goals.
Although China calls him a “wolf in monk’s robes” who seeks to split Tibet from the rest of China, the Dalai Lama says he merely wants genuine autonomy for Tibetans.
Those who advocate for Tibet see the Dalai Lama’s White House visits as important messages of support for Tibetans and others struggling for human rights. A White House audience for the Nobel Peace Prize laureate this week, however, would have cast a shadow over Obama’s talks with Hu next month.
“You only get one chance to start this the right way,” Douglas Paal, a former senior Asia adviser for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said of Obama’s relationship with Hu.
Obama must balance his efforts to develop ties with China with his desire to support the Dalai Lama. He also needs to overcome harsh criticism by those who feel his administration is not doing enough to push Beijing to better address human rights complaints.
Obama recognizes that how he treats the Dalai Lama will be watched closely – by Beijing, by U.S. lawmakers and voters, and by other world leaders who have been castigated by China for meeting with the Dalai Lama.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that the United States is “kowtowing” to Beijing by not meeting with the Tibetan monk.
The Dalai Lama’s envoy, Lodi Gyari, played down the situation, saying that there “has been no question of President Obama not, at the appropriate time, meeting His Holiness.” He said Monday in a statement that the Dalai Lama, “taking a broader and long-term perspective,” agreed to the postponement in the hope that a cooperative U.S.-China relationship will help resolve Tibetans’ grievances.
This week, the Dalai Lama plans to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the lower chamber of the U.S. Congress, and with Maria Otero, the U.S. special coordinator for Tibetan issues. On Tuesday, he will receive a human rights award in memory of the late Rep. Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in the U.S. Congress.
The Dalai Lama’s meetings with past U.S. presidents were behind the scenes in the White House. President George W. Bush, however, attended an elaborate public ceremony in 2007 and presented the Dalai Lama with the U.S. Congress’ highest civilian honor.
Some of the Dalai Lama’s supporters hope Bush’s break with tradition sets a precedent for future meetings.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly wouldn’t discuss the decision to postpone the meeting. Obama, Kelly said Monday, will raise the topic of human rights during his talks with Hu.
China says Tibet has been part of its territory for four centuries. It has aggressively governed the Himalayan region since communist troops took control there in 1951. Many Tibetans claim they were effectively independent for most of their history and say Chinese rule and economic exploitation are eroding their traditional Buddhist culture.
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