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China, Obama and Dalai Lama Drama

"His Holiness the Dalai Lama with President Barack Obama during their meeting in the Map Room of the White House in Washington DC on February 21, 2014."
"His Holiness the Dalai Lama with President Barack Obama during their meeting in the Map Room of the White House in Washington DC on February 21, 2014."
Dalai Lama. February 21, 2014. In Facebook [profile page]. Retrieved February 23, 2014, https://www.facebook.com/DalaiLama. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Amid strong Chinese disapproval, Obama and the Dalai Lama met on Friday at the White House to discuss the future of human rights in Tibet, according to the New York Times.

Obama "encourages direct dialogue to resolve longstanding differences and that a dialogue that produces results would be positive for China and Tibetans," a White House statement said. The U.S. made a minor concession to China by holding the meeting in the Map Room instead of the Oval Office — a move designed to help Chinese officials save face — but tensions flared nonetheless.

"(If) the U.S. president wishes to meet any person, it's his own affair, but he cannot meet the Dalai," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said before the meeting took place, calling such an event “a serious violation of the norms of international relations.”

China and Tibet’s relationship has been tenuous for decades, especially following the “liberation” of Tibet by the CCP in 1950. When an uprising of Tibetan nationals in 1959 was crushed by the Chinese military, the Dalai Lama —Tibet’s spiritual leader — was forced to flee to India. China established a puppet government in the region and has been blamed for countless human rights abuses over the past sixty plus years, many centered around the suppression of native Tibetan culture. Advocacy groups claim that at least 125 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in the past five years alone to protest Chinese rule.

The heart of Chinese contempt for the Dalai Lama lies in their concern that the religious leader will incite Tibetans to form an independent state, calling him a "wolf in sheep's clothing." The Dalai, meanwhile, claims to desire only religious and cultural autonomy for his people through "compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment and self-discipline" — whether or not Chinese leadership persists.

Aside from serving as a forum for the discussion of human rights, Obama’s decision to meet with the Dalai Lama showed that China's ongoing territorial aggression is unacceptable behavior. As Mark Landler of the New York Times pointed out, Obama “is planning a trip to Asia that will take him to four countries — Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia — that all have territorial disputes with China in their coastal waters.” By choosing to recognize victimized countries and and ignore China's threats, Obama is setting some much needed boundaries regarding what will and won't be tolerated by the international community. Solidarity alone won’t be enough to make a hostile superpower change its ways, but it’s a good place to start.

On track to solving the issue of Tibet is the Dalai Lama's own proposed solution, which he calls the “Middle-Way Approach.” Neither advocating for complete Tibetan independence nor for full assimilation, the approach promises “the protection and preservation of … culture, religion and national identity” for Tibetans and “the security and territorial integrity of the motherland” for the Chinese. If Obama and other supporters of human rights around the world continue standing up to China’s bullying, perhaps the middle way will become the only way for the Middle Kingdom.