Buried in a very long joint statement by President Obama and President Hu Jintao of the People’s Republic of China is the following declaration by the American president:
“We did note that while we recognize 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 representatives of the Dalai Lama to resolve any concerns and differences that the two sides may have.”
The magic words are “we recognize that Tibet is part of the People’s Republic of China.” Although the State Department has stated these words or similar ones for decades, so far as anyone can discover, this is the first time an American president has ever made such a statement in public, before the television cameras of the world’s press. Beijing is trumpeting the Obama declaration with lead articles in People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party newspaper.
Mr. Obama was probably not a volunteer on this subject. On Nov. 6, the South China Morning Post reported that having the American president say these words in public was the No. 1 priority of the Chinese side for the Obama-Hu meetings. They got what they wanted. The comforting words about resuming dialogue with his holiness the Dalai Lama was a small price to pay since Beijing controls the dialogue.
What’s going on here? Why does this matter so vitally to the Chinese Communist Party? Do they just want to humiliate the American president? That may be part of it, but the matter really tracks back 59 years to unfinished business.
In the fall of 1950 the party’s military arm, the People’s Liberation Army, invaded and occupied Tibet. It was the largest military conquest since World War II. Even before China became a nuclear power in the 1960s, no outsider or group of outsiders was going to throw them out. But the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s claim to Tibet has always been an underlying issue.
Beginning in 1987 the Chinese had a setback. After a brutal crackdown in Lhasa in which the photograph of a dead Tibetan child in his grief-stricken father’s arms appeared on the front pages of American newspapers, the American Congress passed a resolution taking note of the 1950 invasion and occupation of Tibet.
Since you can’t invade and conquer your own country, the Congress had recognized the independence of Tibet. Resolutions passed in the early 1990s made that even more explicit and can be found on the International Campaign for Tibet Web site.
Foreign observers in Tibet reported the joy by which these resolutions were read aloud and passed from hand to hand. In essence, the legislative branch of the U.S. government had a different policy on Tibet than the executive branch.
The issue has percolated in U.S.-Chinese relations for more than 20 years but just recently it has risen to the top on Beijing’s agenda list. Why now?
First, because of the American debt to Beijing, they have the power to force the issue. Up to this point, American presidents had artfully dodged the issue. In 1986, President Reagan signed a piece of minor trade legislation he might not have read that included the acknowledgement of Beijing’s rights to Tibet. But no American president, until now, had been forced to walk the plank in public.
Second, on the timing issue, it may be an issue of water. All the major rivers of Asia arise in Tibet and countries in the neighborhood have long been concerned that Beijing would divert the flow to China or use water as a political weapon. Just this year the Chinese began building dams on the Tibet Plateau, and lying about it to the Indian government. Perhaps a coincidence, perhaps not.
The ball is now in the Congress’ court. Rep. Tom Lantos and Sen. Jesse Helms, two leading congressional supporters of the Tibetan people, have passed from the scene. A Democratic Congress is unlikely to embarrass the White House by passing a new resolution denying Beijing’s claim to Tibet.
Unless it is done in the dark of night, it is unlikely that the Congress will pass a resolution reversing their own record on the issue. So, it is likely to remain in limbo for a while, but so long as the Congress has not knowingly given its acquiescence to Beijing’s subjugation of the Tibetan people, there is hope.
William C. Triplett II is the former chief Republican counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.