Director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University. He’s the author of Lhasa: Streets with Memories and wrote the introduction to a new book of essays called The Struggle for Tibet.
President Obama held a forty-five-minute meeting with the Dalai Lama at the White House Thursday amidst deteriorating US-China ties and Beijing’s warnings against the talks. Beijing has summoned the US ambassador to China in protest, saying Washington had interfered in Chinese domestic affairs and "seriously damaged" Sino-American relations. We speak to Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: We begin today with the fallout of President Obama’s meeting with exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in Washington Thursday. Beijing summoned the US ambassador to China Friday morning to protest, saying Washington had interfered in Chinese domestic affairs and, quote, "seriously damaged" Sino-American relations.
President Obama held a forty-five-minute meeting with the Dalai Lama at the White House Thursday amidst deteriorating US-China ties and Beijing’s warnings against the talks. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, quote, "The President stated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China."
The Dalai Lama addressed reporters after the closed meeting.
DALAI LAMA: Tibetan issue is just [inaudible] and calls for peace, in [inaudible] peace, like that. So I mentioned — of course, the President himself inquire about these things. So, [inaudible] a full commitment about “middle way” of approach, and the President is very much [inaudible] supportive
AMY GOODMAN: That was the Dalai Lama.
For more on this story, we’re joined now from Washington, DC by Robert Barnett, the director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University. He’s the author of Lhasa: Streets with Memories and wrote the introduction to a new book of essays called The Struggle for Tibet.
We welcome you, Professor Barnett, to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of President Obama meeting with the Dalai Lama. He already, when the Dalai Lama was in Washington, had not met with him, but this time he did. Why?
ROBERT BARNETT: Well, it’s quite an important moment here, because we’re looking at a world in which relations between powers are changing. We’ve now got two major powers: America and China. And that’s something we haven’t really had for, as you know, for several decades. And it’s not really an ideologically driven relationship. It’s a kind of traditional relationship where these two powers are going to have to find out what their realms of influence and their spheres of possible action are. And this is an important part of that new game being played out.
And actually, it’s quite healthy to see the Americans backing down from last year’s policy, which was to be very conciliatory to the Chinese — didn’t really work very well. And here we see small signs of a little bit more muscular approach from the Americans, but still giving the Chinese what they really wanted, which was a private meeting that didn’t have journalists and didn’t take place in the Oval Office.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Robert Barnett, other presidents have met with the Dalai Lama in the past. What is distinct about this particular meeting?
ROBERT BARNETT: You know, you’re quite right. This is really — would normally be a routine event, just a kind of ritual that takes place with American presidents in the last twenty years. But what’s changed very much is that, three years ago, China very much stepped up its campaign to try to stop Western leaders meeting the Dalai Lama. In fact, they even have been demanding that Western countries don’t allow the Dalai Lama even to visit those countries. They increased their rhetoric, very much increased the level of threat, and this was hugely effective, with governments in Western Europe — France, Germany, also Britain — Australia, New Zealand, the Pope even, refusing to meet with the Dalai Lama in the last couple of years. So they really had a lot of success with this kind of old-style megaphone diplomacy that China has been using.
This visit, this meeting by the President, Obama, yesterday means that that run of success comes to an end for China. It can’t do that with America. And it means really that America is calling China’s bluff. What’s it actually going to do, now the Americans have said, “We’re not going to be pushed by this kind of language”? So, this means the two have to work out a new kind of relationship, where they really have to recognize differences, as well as recognizing the small concessions that each side is making for the other.
AMY GOODMAN: The Dalai Lama held a brief news conference in Washington Thursday. He accused China of trying to become a repressive superpower.
DALAI LAMA: Ultimate ambition is to become superpower. In order to become superpower, moral authority is very important condition. Superpower in the sense of military force, [inaudible] like former Soviet Union. That brings more fear, more distrust, more uncomfortable.
AMY GOODMAN: He also — the Dalai Lama also addressed the question of state censorship in China.
DALAI LAMA: I think the over one billion Chinese people have a right to know the reality. So censorship [inaudible] is immoral. And also, the Chinese people have [inaudible] deceptions of the brain to judge which is right, which is wrong. So there is no reason to put a lot of control about media. That’s wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Barnett, what Dalai Lama had to say about the issue of a repressive superpower and censorship?
ROBERT BARNETT: Yes, this is a sometime — somehow, a slightly new approach from the Dalai Lama. And it’s him backing off from actually stronger language as he’s used in the past, accusing the Chinese of cultural genocide in Tibet and so on. But it’s going to be viewed very negatively by China. They’re going to see this as more interference.
But it’s interesting. We can see the Dalai Lama trying to move towards the middle ground, trying to occupy this general territory about rights, rather than asking for any special concessions for Tibetan territory and so on. And this is a problem for China, because China’s argument is that this man is secretly trying to get independence for Tibet, and we’re not really seeing the evidence for that. That’s why the Americans are finding it very difficult to accede to Chinese demands not to meet the Dalai Lama.
And I think there’s actually a bigger question behind this. I think many people, people who support the Tibetan issue or the Dalai Lama — I think they have a certain kind of — really a kind of popular political intelligence that the Tibet issue is really very easy to solve for the Chinese. It has this very compromising leader, this very concessional leader. They could solve it quite quickly. And that’s very rare in the world today. We can’t solve issues like Chechnya or Darfur or Palestine easily. And there is a certain genuine sense, for the Americans, trying to encourage the Chinese to resolve this issue before it’s too late, before the Dalai Lama dies.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And his allegation that China is seeking to become a superpower like the Soviet Union, how does that play in other parts of the third world, where obviously China has increasing influence but, unlike the United States, has no military bases and no threats, no military threats, to other parts of the world?
ROBERT BARNETT: Well, that, of course, is not how it’s seen in India. We have a lot of growing tension in India about the perception that China is, as they call it, building a string of pearls around India with bases at various islands and Burma, Pakistan, and so on, and these new patrols, anti-piracy patrols, that China is involved in. So there’s some criticism of that perception.
Of course, China has legitimate interests, like other major powers do, in securing sea channels and so on. But there are some areas in Southeast Asia and South Asia where there is some nervousness about China. And interestingly, Tibet is exactly at the center of those tensions. Tibet is becoming surprisingly significant in ways that I think nobody really realized twenty years ago, in that it’s the nuclear tri-junction, probably the only one in the world, between Pakistan, India and China. Three nuclear powers face each other over that Tibetan border. And it’s also the source for the water supply for the main rivers that feed about a fifth of the world’s population. And, as we know, the glaciers there are showing signs of drying up. So future conflicts about water, that a lot of people predict, will probably involve Tibet, if it comes to that kind of tension. So, there are some feelings of nervousness about China in certain parts of Asia.
I’m not sure that it’s fair to use the word “superpower” or to question morality, because all these powers have similar drives for their own interests. But we’re still looking here for someone to articulate ways in which to have a viable conversations with the Chinese and for the Chinese with the Americans. There’s a huge gulf of understanding between these. But that’s quite common with many countries, actually. Great difficulty now in finding ways for countries to talk intelligently to each other about difficult problems.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what’s been the impact, both in terms of the Chinese government and of the Dalai Lama’s standing of the recent widespread protests and rioting that occurred throughout Tibet, compared to the troubles back in the 1980s, to the public protests back then?
ROBERT BARNETT: Well, this is a very interesting issue, and not much mention is being made of it right now in the Chinese press. Although if you look at the papers in Tibet today and yesterday, they just show pictures of Tibetans who are saying that they’re very happy, they’re dancing, celebrating the new year, and so on.
But I think the protest that you describe that happened two years ago have been very significant, because unlike the ones in previous decades, they covered the entire Tibetan Plateau. That’s an area that covers at least a quarter of China, vast, vast area of high mountain plateau, and they cover many different classes of people, particularly nomads and farmers, as well as students, and unlike previous protests, which were just small traders.
So, this shows that the Dalai Lama does have the fundamental politics right, that those protests almost all called for support for him. He has a kind of mandate, a popular mandate, and that’s his one strength. Really, all these issues we see about Tibet are really about that question inside Tibet: what will Tibetans inside Tibet tolerate from China? How much will they put up with, if they don’t get concessions from China on their cultural, religious questions?
We are seeing changes in China. There are very important discussions coming on this. This writer who I’ve been working with, Wang Lixiong, an enormously significant intellectual, who’s starting to use terms like “cultural imperialism” to describe China’s way of treating Tibetans. These conversations are beginning to emerge inside China. Very significant. But it’s going to be a long time before they lead to real policy changes in the leadership of China. That’s going to take time.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Barnett, we want to thank you for being with us, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University, wrote the introduction to the new book by Wang Lixiong called The Struggle for Tibet.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. When we come back, we’ll play a clip of a dialog I had with the Dalai Lama in 2003 here in New York. Stay with us.