Posts tagged: U.S.-China relations

Treasury Secretary Geithner Speaks on China Relationship

By , January 13, 2011

Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner

In preparation for President Hu Jintao’s State visit next week, Secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, provided his thoughts on the future of the U.S.-China economic relationship at John Hopkins School of Advance International Studies (SAIS) on Wednesday, January 12.  While the speech provided the usual platitudes of a shared economic future, the tone was at times cautionary about the current state of the economic relationship.  Geithner spoke frankly of China’s barriers to market access and concerns over currency.  With Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to each give their own speeches in the coming days, Hu’s State visit to the U.S. next week might not be the polite rhetoric of before.  See below for Geithner’s full comments.

Secretary of the Treasury Timothy F. Geithner

“The Path Ahead for the U.S.-China Economic Relationship”

Remarks As Prepared for Delivery

It’s a pleasure to be here at SAIS.

SAIS is a leader in one of the most important challenges in public policy and education – that of helping Americans understand the world and the role we play in it.  This is important because we cannot effectively pursue our national interests unless we understand the objectives, the intentions, and the capabilities of other nations.

Next week, President Obama will host President Hu Jintao at the White House.

This State Visit takes place at a time of important transition for the world economy, the Chinese economy, and the U.S. economy.

The global economy is emerging from the financial crisis, but that crisis has left lasting scars that will take years to repair.  And it has left a growing gap between the growth trajectories of the large developed economies and the rapidly growing emerging economies.

While many of the major economies are still confronted with the challenge of rebuilding after crisis, many of the emerging economies are at the early stage of what should be a long period of very rapid economic growth, with rising incomes creating growing demand for resources and for investment capital.

The growth of the United States stands between these two divergent paths.  We are likely to grow at about half the rate of the major emerging economies, but about twice the rate of Europe and Japan.

These dynamics will fundamentally change the balance in the world economy, forcing changes in the architecture of the trade and financial systems.

In this new global context, China’s principal economic challenge is how it will manage the next stage in its transition from a state-dominated developing economy, dependent on external demand and technology, to a more market-oriented economy, with growth powered by domestic demand and innovation.

Today, I want to talk about the implications of these changes for our economic relationship with China and for U.S. economic policy.

China presents enormous economic opportunities for the United States and for the world, but its size, the speed of its ascent, and its policies are a growing source of concern in the United States and in many other countries.

To put those concerns in context, I’d like to begin by stating a few fundamental propositions about our economic relationship.

First, the economic relationship between the United States and China provides tremendous benefits to both our nations.  Even though we compete in many areas, our economic strengths are largely complementary.

Second, China faces a very complicated set of challenges as it transitions toward a more open, market oriented economy.  It is very much in our interest that the Chinese manage these challenges successfully.

Third, our priorities in our economic relationship with China – from its exchange rate to its treatment of intellectual property – reflect changes that are fundamentally in China’s interest.  Ultimately, China will need to make these changes in order to promote its own long-term prosperity.

Fourth, and finally, I want to emphasize that the prosperity of Americans depends overwhelmingly on the economic policies we pursue to strengthen American competitiveness. Even as we work to encourage further reforms in China, we need to understand that our strength as a nation will depend, not on choices made by China’s leaders, but on the choices we make here at home.

Now, over the last few decades, China has emerged as a major economic force.

That growth was unleashed by China’s economic reforms, a growing labor force, and one of history’s greatest economic migrations from farms to factories.

But China’s growth was also made possible by the access China enjoyed to the markets, the investments, and the technology of the United States and the other major economies.

The open, multilateral system of trade and investment, with its balance of rules and responsibilities, was built with the leadership of the United States decades before China opened up to the world.

The opportunities created by the system were fundamental to China’s economic ascent, and they remain vital to China’s ability to continue to grow.

China needs the United States, but the United States also benefits very substantially from our rapidly expanding economic relationship with China.

The benefits of this relationship are hard to capture in any one statistic, but remember this.

The United States is on track to export more than $100 billion of goods and services to China this year.  Our exports to China are growing at twice the rate of our exports to the rest of the world.

These exports are supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs across the nation in all sectors – from high technology to soybeans, aircraft to autos, and forklifts to financial services.

We have a great deal invested in each other’s success.

In our economic relationship with China we have focused on two principal objectives.

The first is to expand opportunities for U.S. companies to export and sell to the Chinese market.  This requires a more level playing field for U.S. companies that compete with Chinese companies in China, in the United States, and around the world.

Our second objective is to promote reforms that will reduce China’s reliance on export led growth and encourages a shift to domestic consumption and investment.  As part of this, China’s exchange rate needs to strengthen in response to market forces.

I want to provide a quick review of some of our concerns and the extent of progress, as we see it, in each of these areas.

First, on the broader competitive landscape in China and the opportunities and challenges we face competing in China:

The commanding heights of China’s economy and its financial system are still dominated by the government.

Chinese companies and workers are able to take advantage of a range of preferences and subsidies and operate behind trade barriers that give them a competitive advantage relative to U.S. and other foreign firms and workers.

They get access to low-cost finance, land, and energy.  They enjoy preferences in terms of access to government contracts.

Next, theft of intellectual property remains widespread in China, across many industries.

And the Chinese government has introduced a range of new policies to encourage innovation in China that are designed to favor Chinese technology over foreign technology, including in the enormous Chinese government procurement market.

Where these practices violate China’s international commitments, we are actively using the remedies available under U.S. and international trade laws to protect our interests.

And China has been gradually moving to address some of our concerns.

The government recently launched a new enforcement effort to combat the theft of intellectual property and to force Chinese companies to pay for the intellectual property they use.

The Chinese leadership has committed to expand opportunities for U.S. firms in access to procurement by government entities.

And the government has committed not to discriminate against U.S. companies that operate in China.

We welcome these commitments.  They don’t address all our concerns, but they are something we can build on.  And we will continue to press the Chinese to translate these commitments into further progress.

Doing so is in their interest.  Government domination limits competitiveness within the Chinese economy and prevents the private sector from contributing to growth at its full potential.  And you can’t promote innovation if you don’t protect intellectual property.

Alongside the reforms I’ve mentioned, we want to encourage China to move definitively away from the export driven growth model of the last few decades to a growth model driven by domestic consumption.

The Chinese leadership recognizes that China is now too large relative to the world economy for it to continue to rely on foreign demand to grow.  And the government has adopted a comprehensive program of reforms to rebalance the economy and shift growth to domestic demand.

This requires reforms to increase public spending on health and education, raise and enforce minimum wages, remove barriers to investment in services, expand access to financial products for individuals and entrepreneurs, and remove subsidies for investment in the sectors that drove the initial decades of growth.

This transition will take time, but it is already having a major impact on the shape of Chinese growth, and providing increased opportunities for American companies.  Domestic demand is contributing more to growth, and as a consequence, U.S. exports to China are growing more rapidly, and U.S. companies operating in China are seeing more opportunities.

Finally, and importantly, China still closely manages the level of its exchange rate and restricts the ability of capital to move in and out of the country.

These policies have the effect of keeping the Chinese currency substantially undervalued.

They also impose substantial costs on other emerging economies that run more flexible exchanges rates, and as a result have experienced a substantial loss of competitiveness against China.

This is not a tenable policy for China or for the world economy.

If China does not allow the currency to appreciate more rapidly, it will run the risk of seeing domestic inflation accelerate and face greater risk of a damaging rise in asset prices, both of which will threaten future growth.  And sustaining an undervalued currency will undermine China’s own efforts to rebalance growth toward domestic consumption and higher-value-added production.

Since June of 2010, when Chinese authorities announced they would resume moving toward a more flexible exchange rate, they have allowed the currency to appreciate only about 3 percent against the dollar.  This is a pace of about 6 percent a year in nominal terms, but significantly faster in real terms because inflation in China is much higher than in the United States.

We believe it is in China’s interest to allow the currency to appreciate more rapidly in response to market forces.  And we believe China will do so because the alternative would be too costly – for China and for China’s relations with the rest of the world.

These are our main priorities.  China’s objectives are focused on the following areas:

  • China wants more access to U.S. high technology products.
  • China to take greater advantage of investment opportunities in the United States.
  • China would like to be accorded the same terms of access that market economies enjoy.

We are willing to make progress on these issues, but our ability to move on these issues will depend of course on how much progress we see from China.

As China reduces the role of the state in the economy, reforms policies that discriminate against U.S. companies, removes subsidies and preferences for domestic firms and technology, and allows its exchange rate to reflect market forces, then we will be able to make more progress on China’s objectives.

In any discussion of China, I think it is important for Americans to understand the solutions to our challenges in the United States rest first and foremost in the policies of Washington, not of Beijing.

Fundamentally, how many jobs and how much wealth we create will be the result of the choices we make in the United States – not the choices of others.

In our efforts to rebuild and put Americans back to work, we have to make sure we are making the investments and reform that will be essential to our capacity to grow in the future.

As countries like China, India, Brazil and other emerging economies grow and expand, we want the American economy, American workers, and American companies to play a major role in – and gain substantial benefits from – that growth.

We want to see a substantial part of that growing demand outside of the United States met by goods and services that are created and produced in the United States, and fueled by investment in the United States.

If we are successful in doing that, we will be stronger as a nation.

But to be successful in meeting that challenge, there are things we must do.

We must invest more in research and development.

We must invest more in educational reforms.

We must invest more in public infrastructure.

We must create stronger incentives for investment in the United States, by both American and foreign companies.

We must be more forceful and effective in promoting American exports.

And we must restore fiscal responsibility.  This will require the government to spend less and spend more wisely, so that we can afford to make the investments that are critical to future growth.  And it will require tax reform that produces a system that is more simple and more fair, that encourages growth and investment, and that will help restore fiscal sustainability.

These are our challenges.  And they are not just an economic imperative, they are a national security imperative.  Our strength as a nation depends on the ability of our political system to move quickly enough to put in place solutions to our long-term problems.

Our great strengths as a country have been in our openness to ideas and talent, our capacity to innovate, our excellence in higher education, a willingness to invest public resources strategically in scientific research and discovery, and the political will to confront challenges with wisdom and force.

If we preserve and build on these strengths, and if China successfully continues on its path to a more open, market economy, then both our countries and the world economy will be in a much stronger position.

The President recently said, “We should feel confident about our ability to compete, but we are going to have to step up our game.”

China’s rise offers us the opportunity of dramatic growth in demand for things Americans create and produce.  But it also will force us to raise our game.

We should welcome both the opportunity and the challenge.

Thank you.


Tom Friedman Admits to Not Understanding China…So Why Does He Write About It?

By , January 12, 2011

Orville Shcell (R), Asia Society's Oprah, Interviews Tom Friedman (L)

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is not a China scholar and knows little of China; that was his mantra in response to questions about China’s development at Monday night’s “The U.S. and China: How Should Americans View the New Balance of Power?” sponsored by the Asia Society (watch full video here).  While statements admitting to an utter lack of knowledge on the subject matter are usually fatal to a key speaker’s effectiveness, for Friedman and the 90 minute event, at times it worked and gave one pause to think of the United State’s own future.

In an Oprah-like setting, Orville Schell, director of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations and one of America’s preeminent China scholars, sat down with Friedman to muse about China’s rise vis-à-vis the United State’s current economic and political stagnation.  Friedman sees China’s rise as a result of its adoption of a “get-it-done” attitude, an attitude that the United States once had but seems to have lost.  For Friedman, it is this attitude that allows China to quickly build amazingly modern structures like the Tianjin Convention Center in just over eight months while the United States languishes with broken escalators in Penn Station for months at a time.  The fact that China has cheap, and sometimes unpaid, migrant labor and shoddy construction standards didn’t seem to register with Friedman, although Schell did raise the issue.

Throughout the evening, Friedman highlighted China’s achievements with scant regard to China’s drawbacks.  But at one point, Friedman acknowledged the one-sided nature of his analysis, arguing that it was necessary to examine China’s current success to see what it is we, the United States, need to improve.  Friedman’s hyperbolic analysis of China was at times irritating, but he did have a point.  China does appear to “get-things-done” – arguably it has not suffered the same economic setback as the U.S. and it is able to achieve certain goals, such as becoming a global power in green technology.

Yes, Freidman acknowledged, China does have an authoritarian regime that is easier to manage than a burly

Epitomizing the Get it Done Spirit - Rosie the Riveter

democracy; but as Friedman noted, what it is about China that we envy are the values it adopted that we once held.  It used to be the United States that could get things done, that could put a man on the moon, “not because they are easy but because they are hard.”  Friedman wondered –  where did that spirit go.  “We have nothing to learn from China” Friedman stated, we merely have to reclaim our traditional values.

While Friedman believed that the forces driving China today are the same forces that drove us to become a superpower many decades before, Schell had a more nuanced analysis of China’s rise.  In answering his own question as to where China’s energy to “get-things-done” comes from (which also elicited Friedman to open his laptop and take notes for his new book), Schell put China’s rise into its own historical context.

For Schell, China’s energy comes from its people’s own desire to be great.  In examining China’s modern history, Schell noted that China has been a failure – the 20th Century began with the collapse of the dynasty system; Sun Yat-sen’s short rule brought no great success, Chiang Kai-shek’s republican period provided less, and Mao’s reign merely created a larger and poorer population.  It was not until Deng Xiaoping’s presidency (1978-1997) that China started to become successful and regain the greatness of antiquity.  For Schell, this desire to be great is an important motivating factor and allows the Chinese people to forgive its government for many of its shortcomings.  Although Schell did not mention it, China is not alone in its desire to be great; arguably the United States belief in itself as a “beacon the hill” has had an equally motivating quality.

But the discussion soon returned back to the United States and its recent stagnation in light of China’s rise.  How did the U.S. lose its path Schell wondered.  For Friedman it is largely emblematic of our polarized politics – polarization about all the wrong things.  Instead of focusing on our failed education system or our deteriorating infrastructure, politics focuses on rhetoric and is unable to create the policies that will guide the U.S. in a new world in this new century.

How can we get that back?  For America, the future has yet to be written according to Friedman, but there will need to be a catalytic event for America to regain its focus.  Our democracy was designed as such; with its checks and balances, its multiple voices, only through a catalytic event can the United States purposefully move forward.

Monday night’s talk was interesting not for its China analysis but for its scrutiny of America’s current status.  Friedman certainly paints China with a wide brush and it’s easy to critique Friedman’s arguments pertaining to China. But it’s important to be open to his message about America.  China has become a global leader in green technology; the U.S. still has members of Congress who do not believe in climate change.  A green technology bill that likely would have created jobs and put the United States at the front of an nascent industry was unable to pass the Senate.

Americans feel anxious about China’s rise, but it is not necessarily China’s fault. For Friedman, America still has the goods to succeed, it just needs to push aside the white noise of today’s politics and reclaim its values.  And that is why he writes about China.  Whether that can be done has yet to be seen.  But Friedman remains hopeful; frustrated but hopeful.

Tom Friedman’s co-authored book is now available in stores: That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, By Tom Friedman & Michael Mandelbaum (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 5, 2011), 400 pages.

What’s the Big Deal About a Pile of Rocks? The Diaoyu Island Incident

By , October 7, 2010

This past September, the world watched as the centuries-old feud between China and Japan reached epic proportions over a little-known chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.  Known as the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese, the Senkaku Islands in Japanese, both China and Japan claim them as their own and each seeks control of the oil-rich seabed that potentially lies beneath. 

 As Marcy Nicks Moody writes in Foreign Policy Digest (reprinted below), at stake with these islands is more than just a pile of rocks. 

Speak Softly and Carry a Big Wallet: China Flexes Economic Muscle in Regional Disputes
By Marcy Nicks Moody
Originally Printed in Foreign Policy Digest

Last month, a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese coastguard patrol ships off the coast of a small chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.  Japanese authorities took the boat’s crew into custody, and prosecutors debated whether to press charges against the boat’s captain for obstruction of justice.  Demanding the captain’s release, Beijing made strenuous arguments invoking Chinese sovereignty and human rights.  Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao refused to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan during a recent United Nations Summit meeting in New York and insisted that the conflict be resolved through diplomatic channels, while simultaneously suspending all mid- and high-level political contact between the two countries.  When the fishing boat captain was released, Beijing responded by insisting that Japan issue a formal apology and provide financial compensation.   Japan, in turn, argued that China should compensate Japan for the damage done to its naval ships.  Whether the collision was intentional is unclear, and it is unlikely that further light will be shed on the subject.


If the scale and particularly bitter nature of the diplomatic denouement following this small maritime accident strikes readers as odd, it should.   These events put into sharp relief the changing security landscape that both Asia and the United States face today in the Asian maritime.  They may also provide some insight into how China intends to conduct its increasingly forward facing maritime and energy security policy.

The islands near which the collision occurred are a matter of ongoing dispute between China and Japan that dates back for at least 40 years. Although the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu Islands, in Chinese) are effectively a pile of uninhabitable rocks, it became known in the 1970s as an area potentially rich in oil and gas deposits in the surrounding waters, control of which could improve either country’s energy security dramatically. At present, the islands are controlled by Japan, but claimed by China. Although both have legitimate grounds for their claims, there is no foreseeable end to the dispute in sight. As Japanese authorities held the Chinese fishing boat captain on the basis that they might charge him with a violation of Japanese law, they were implying that these waters are, indeed, Japanese. For this reason, it is not entirely surprising that China would respond with such vociferous complaints as it did. What was surprising were the unannounced measures that China also took.

In addition to arresting four Japanese citizens in China for spying, which may have been coincidental, China appears to have suspended the export of rare earth minerals to Japan. Rare earths are elements in the Earth’s crust. Although they exist in miniscule concentrations, they are crucial to a range of modern technologies, including car batteries, wind turbines, and many other electronics. China mines approximately 97 percent of the world’s rare earths and, given the relative importance of electronics manufacturing to the Japanese economy, this move has the potential to be extremely damaging to Japan. No one from the Chinese government announced the suspension, and officials from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) have denied any sort of embargo. Chinese officials have, however, made public that they are contemplating fining Toyota Motor Company’s Chinese operations for various violations, including illegal rebates to Chinese car dealerships. While it is possible that the dispute with the trawler captain, the suspension of rare earths exports, the arrests, and the Toyota fines are all coincidental, it seems more likely that China is manipulating its economic and commercial relationship to gain leverage in its dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

China has similar ongoing disputes over other chains of islands in the South China Sea with its Southeast Asian neighbors—in particular, Vietnam. Like the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the waters surrounding the Spratly and Paracel Islands are believed to be rich in oil and natural gas, in addition to their valuable proximity to busy shipping lanes. The U.S. government inserted itself into the dispute in July, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States would be willing to facilitate multilateral talks on the issue. She insisted upon U.S. neutrality, but argued that the United States has a strong interest in preserving free shipping in the region. Not surprisingly, a number of Southeast Asian countries welcomed the announcement, while China, caught off-guard by the announcement, maintained that the talks should be undertaken in a bilateral format.


China has not been the positive, productive, and cooperative international partner that the Obama administration seems to have been expecting two years ago. On the security side, cooperation on the North Korean question has disintegrated; Beijing has refused to move forward on sanctions against Iran; and U.S.-China military-to-military relations are increasingly strained. On the economic side, meanwhile, China has not allowed its currency to appreciate materially; it has recently placed steep tariffs on some U.S. exports, and the business environment is widely acknowledged to have become increasingly hostile to non-Chinese enterprises. If nothing else, Secretary Clinton’s July announcement is a mechanism for registering U.S. frustration with the current trajectory. Like China, Washington is also willing to play the zero-sum game.

The disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu, Spratly, and Paracel Islands are all based, at least in part, in China’s quest for greater energy security. At the same time, Beijing has taken an increasingly aggressive stance in a range of its foreign policy dealings, both with the United States and with its Asian partners. Given the trend of global economic interdependence that relies more and more heavily on China’s mammoth economy, Beijing’s recent behavior could forecast some serious struggles in the future, as China manipulates its growing commercial influence to leverage its position in the Asian security landscape.

Marcy Nicks Moody writes about China. In 2007-08, she was a Fulbright Scholar in China, where she was also a Research Fellow with the U.S.-Asia Law Institute. She received an M.A. in East Asian Studies from Columbia University and graduated from Brown University.

Warming Relations? China & the U.S.

By , April 2, 2010

In just a day, it appears that the bad blood that seemed to be spill between the U.S. and China is behind us.  Yesterday morning, China announced that it will participate in talks about sanctions against Iran, by late afternoon, President Hu Jintao of China announced that he will be visiting Wasnhington DC at the end of April, and this evening, the White House just issue a press release summarizing President Obama’s call with President Hu (text below).  Interesting turn events.  Does this signal a changed attitude between the two countries or perhaps just the natural ups and downs in a relationship between two powerful countries?


Office of the Press Secretary


For Immediate Release                                                                                   April 1, 2010

Readout of the President’s Call with President Hu of China

Tonight, President Obama spoke with President Hu of China for about an hour. President Obama welcomed the decision by President Hu to attend the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit which will be an important opportunity for them to address their shared interest in stopping nuclear proliferation and protecting against nuclear terrorism.  They also discussed the importance of developing a positive bilateral relationship.  President Obama underscored the importance of working together to ensure that Iran lives up to its international obligations.  He also emphasized the importance of the United States and China along with other major economies implementing the G20 commitments designed to produce balanced and sustainable growth.


Obama, the Dalai Lama and Tibet – What’s all the Fuss?

By , February 18, 2010
The Dalai Lama at the U.S. Capitol

The Dalai Lama at the U.S. Capitol

President Obama welcomes the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, to the White House today. With this visit come renewed fears that U.S.-China relations are in a downward spiral.

Obama’s Meeting with the Dalai Lama will Not Harm U.S.-China Relations

The U.S. press has been adamant that President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama will strain U.S.-China relations.  But this fear is misplaced.  Similar to the inevitability of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the Chinese government knows that a meeting with the Dalai Lama is a done deal – a U.S. president, at some point during his term, will invite the Dalai Lama to the White House.

Since 1990, every U.S. president has met with the Dalai Lama.  Obama’s meeting today is far from a surprise to Beijing; it’s what U.S. presidents do.  The topic even came up during President Obama’s visit to Beijing in November.  And the Obama Administration was fully aware that any contact with the Dalai Lama would elicit an angry response from Beijing.  It always does.

These recent events – the decision to meet with the Dalai Lama and China’s vocal response – in no way reflect a change in policy; it’s not a reflection of China flexing its muscles nor is it a reflection of a more hard-line approach by the U.S.  It’s merely just par for the course in U.S.-China relations; a rite of passage of sorts.

This isn’t to say that there has not been a change in the relationship.  The U.S.’ vocal critique of China’s internet censorship and the increasingly belligerent tone regarding China’s currency could show a stronger stance toward China.  Additionally, if China votes against sanctions against Iran or decides to abstain from Six-Party talks with North Korea, this could symbolize a China feeling stronger in the world.  But the rhetoric surrounding the Dalai Lama’s visit in no way represents a changed policy.

Beijing is Actually Happy about Obama’s Meeting with the Dalai Lama

President Bush & the Dalai Lama

President Bush & the Dalai Lama

Well, “happy” might be a bit of a stretch, but Beijing is, at the very least, satisfied with the concessions that President Obama has already made.  Beijing knows things could be much worse (for them at least).  In 2007, President George W. Bush welcomed the Dalai Lama to the White House, and in a public ceremony, awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal.  Never before had a U.S. president met the Dalai Lama in public; and to award him with one of the highest civilian awards, just added insult to China’s injury.

Needless to say, this enraged the Chinese government, and post 2007, Beijing went on a global rampage to end foreign governments’ meetings with the Dalai Lama.  According to an interview with Tibetan scholar Robert J. Barnett, China has been largely successful with its strategy: “[l]ast year, only two national leaders met the Dalai Lama….compared to twenty-one in the previous four years.”

The Map Room: Less Prestigious perhaps, But more Ornate

The Map Room: Less Prestigious perhaps, But more Ornate

Comparatively, President Obama’s meeting tomorrow is much less confrontational than his predecessor’s.  President Obama will meet the Dalai Lama in private, and while the meeting will be held in the West Wing of the White House (not in the private residence as President Bill Clinton did and what the Chinese government would prefer), it will not be held in the Oval Office.  Instead, President Obama will meet the Dalai Lama in the less prestigious Map Room.  While this seems inconsequential to the American audience, this distinction is of high significance to China and is likely sufficient to placate the country.

So Why all the Hoopla?

In an interview with NPR, China historian Jeffery Wasserstrom explained the problem succinctly – both countries use this meeting to play toward their domestic audiences. If the U.S. president did not meet with the Dalai Lama, he would receive censure from Congress, human rights groups, and the public at large.  Last fall, prior to his trip to China, President Obama postponed a meeting with the Dalai Lama and received a lot of heat for it; the move was portrayed as a way to gain favor with China prior to his visit to Beijing.

Similarly, the Chinese government must cater to its domestic audience; part of that catering is to use angry rhetoric

Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi meets with the Dalai Lama; another meeting that angered beijing

Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi meets with the Dalai Lama; another meeting that angered beijing

against any government leader who meets with the Dalai Lama.  To its people, the Chinese government portrays the Dalai Lama as a separatist intent on splitting Tibet from China.  Mix this with the Chinese government’s emphasis on nationalism, sovereignty and Tibet as an integral part of China, and you have a dangerous game.  The Chinese government has created a self-fulfilling prophecy – by encouraging strong feelings of nationalism, the people then demand that the Chinese government act upon any perceived slights to this nationalism.  In the case of Tibet, even though much of the people’s feelings are manufactured by the government, if the Chinese government does not respond with sharp attacks against anyone who meets with the Dalai Lama, then the people will begin to question its legitimacy.

The End Result for Tibet

So the dance continues.  But the third wheel here is the Tibetan people.  For the U.S. and China, this is a symbolic game to placate their respective domestic audiences; but for the Tibetans, this is about survival.  With each new U.S. president and with each new meeting with the Dalai Lama, there is a hope that the situation in Tibet can be resolved.

The Dalai Lama has not been allowed to return to his homeland and minister to his people, and the with an influx of ethnically Han Chinese into Tibet and laws that limit the Tibetan’s religious practices, it is questionable if the religion, the culture, and the people will be able to survive.  At the same time, negotiations between Beijing and envoys of the Dalai Lama have been at a standstill for over 15 years now, with the Tibetan side refusing to budge on its demand for greater autonomy, not just for the land mass of Tibet, but for all areas in China where there is a large population of Tibetans (this would be a little like Puerto Rico asking for greater autonomy for the island of Puerto Rico and also the South Bronx, Spanish Harlem and other areas of the U.S. with large Puerto Rican populations).  The Dalai Lama’s envoys met with officials in Beijing last month, but again the talks proved fruitless.

For the past 20 years, the U.S. has relied on symbolic gestures in its dealings with Tibet and has done little to actually move the dialogue between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and Beijing forward (see Melyvn C. Goldstein, The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet and the Dalai Lama).  There’s a lot of focus on the Dalai Lama’s visit to the White House, but there is never a discussion as to why.  What does this do?  Where does this get the Dalai Lama?

What’s at stake here is more than just a popularity contest and the time for symbolic gestures has long passed.  Both China and the Dalai Lama are entrenched in their positions and neither is going to budge, but to move forward, a compromise is needed.  And each side does want to move forward; the Dalai Lama wants to return to Tibet and provide for greater religious freedom for Tibetans, and the Chinese government doesn’t want to live with the constant threat of riots and protests in the region.  But at this stage, a third-party, like the U.S., needs to step up to the plate to help negotiate a compromise – symbolic meetings won’t do the job.  Without the role of a third-party, there will never be progress.

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