Behind South Africa's Snub of the Dalai Lama

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Damien Meyer / AFP / Getty

South Africa said today the Dalai Lama has been denied a visa to meet here with other Nobel laureates, arguing his visit would overshadow the country's preparations to host the 2010 World Cup.

Nobody ought to have been surprised that South Africa chose to heed China's concerns and deny a visa to the Dalai Lama — not because of the South African government's poor record of responding to human-rights crises in its own neighborhood, but because of China's growing diplomatic influence and assertiveness thanks to its status as the great hope of an ailing world economy. Regardless of their rhetoric, most governments make foreign policy decisions less on moral grounds than on cold-blooded assessments of national interest. And the South African government said bluntly that it was not in the country's national interest to host the Tibetan spiritual leader at a conference that was to discuss using the soccer World Cup to fight racism.

A government spokesman said that no visa would be issued for the Dalai Lama to visit South Africa before the soccer tournament, which is to be held next year in South Africa. "We want the focus to remain on South Africa," said Thabo Masebe, spokesman for President Kgalema Motlanthe. "A visit now by the Dalai Lama would move the focus from South Africa onto issues in Tibet." And, of course, there's the little matter of the Chinese embassy's warning to the South Africans that the visit would be "inopportune" and would put bilateral relations at risk. (See pictures of six decades of the Dalai Lama's spiritual leadership.)

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the longtime antiapartheid campaigner who had personally invited his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate to the conference, was outraged. He condemned the decision as "disgraceful, in line with our country's abysmal record at the U.N. Security Council, a total betrayal of our struggle history," adding that "we are shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure. I feel deeply distressed and ashamed." The conference has been postponed.

But the South African government appears to have concluded that the outrage of Tutu and other human-rights campaigners is preferable to the wrath of the country's major trading partner and foreign investor. After all, France is still paying a serious diplomatic price (that could have commercial consequences) for President Nicolas Sarkozy's decision to meet with the Dalai Lama last year. China immediately canceled a planned summit with the European Union; Premier Wen Jiabao avoided France on a European tour that was lucrative for local business; and Beijing will again snub the French leader at the forthcoming G-20 summit. South Africa, with its high unemployment levels, is in a far more economically vulnerable position than France is. China has in recent years invested some $6 billion in the South African economy, which accounts for about 20% of Africa's booming trade with China. (See pictures of China's business with Africa.)

It could be argued that because the Dalai Lama had been invited to a civil-society event, the South African government might have tried to assuage the Chinese by simply refraining from meeting him in any official capacity — as the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel did when the Tibetan spiritual leader visited Germany last May. (British Prime Minister Gordon Brown tried to skirt the issue by meeting the Dalai Lama, but away from his official residence at an interfaith conference, to signal that the Tibetan was being received as a religious figure rather than as a political leader.) Last year's riots in Tibet, and the fact that this year is the 50th anniversary of the Chinese military's roll into Tibet and the Dalai Lama's flight into exile, have made Beijing move more aggressively to limit the Dalai Lama's access to international platforms.

"Regarding the Dalai Lama's overseas activities, we resolutely oppose any country's government having official contact with the Dalai Lama or enabling or offering a platform for his splittist activities," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters this week. Although the Dalai Lama has limited himself to calling for autonomy, Beijing accuses him of leading a secessionist movement.

While Tutu and other activists admonish the South African government for the decision, and liken it to the nation's passivity in the face of President Robert Mugabe's violent suppression of democratic opposition in next-door Zimbabwe, the South African stance is hardly unique. Just this week, the government of Taiwan — hardly a flunky of Beijing — urged a local journalists' organization to cancel a planned Dalai Lama visit to the island, saying the time was not "opportune" for such a visit.

China is not only Africa's most important economic partner; it is increasingly the most important economic partner of the major Western European economies. Its economic role will inevitably boost its diplomatic influence. It can be argued, of course, that China's economic ties are based on self-interest and would not be jeopardized if governments could find ways of symbolically acknowledging the plight of the Dalai Lama and his people while giving priority to relations with China. That's something the U.S. will hope to continue to do. But given France's experience and the state of South Africa's economy, Pretoria clearly feels it is in no position to test the limits of Beijing's tolerance for what China sees as meddling in its internal affairs.

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