Talking Softly, Without the Big Stick

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CHRISTOPHER OGDENConsidering he's a soft-spoken monk and not the head of a major nation, the lineup of officials eager to talk with him was remarkable: President Bill Clinton, the First Lady, Vice President Al Gore, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Yet last week's White House welcome was more than a reflection of the respect and affection Americans have long had for the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet. It was the latest step in a noble, though perhaps futile effort to reach accord with China over the future of Tibet, from which he fled nearly 40 years ago during a failed revolt against Beijing's occupation of his homeland.The very visibility of last week's meeting guaranteed three short-term results: first, that nothing would happen in Washington because China would resent the overly public U.S. involvement in what Beijing considers an internal affair; next, that Clinton would bring up Tibet again with Chinese President Jiang Zemin at this week's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Malaysia; and last, that there would be another phase of the dialogue, which all three parties would approach more quietly.So there is motion if not movement underway, as has been the case since Clinton visited China in June and, in a news conference, urged Jiang to begin a dialogue with the Dalai Lama in return for the recognition that Tibet is part of China. Jiang replied that he'd talk if the Dalai Lama publicly acknowledged that not only Tibet was an inalienable part of China but also Taiwan, where he had visited to the annoyance of Beijing. He has done neither, and while there have been back-channel contacts between the Tibetan and Jiang, no negotiations have begun. That's where the matter stood when the Dalai Lama arrived in Washington. The ball was in his court, and Clinton hoped to move it along. Why was a separate matter.The U.S. President, who has already made clear that he sees China, not Japan, as Asia's future power, has devoted more effort to Tibet than any of his predecessors. He is not a Buddhist follower, as are some of his Hollywood backers, but he has been enormously impressed by the Dalai Lama, who is impossible to dislike and whose cause seems to many Americans a moral imperative. Other presidents have felt similarly, but Clinton senses the timing is more auspicious now. He believes that in Jiang China has an increasingly confident and pragmatic leader, a potential agent of enlightened change. Resolving Tibet could earn China's trust, stabilize its relations with nervous neighbors like India, possibly open the way to peaceful reunification with Taiwan and strengthen ties with the West.PAGE 1  |  
 
The administration has no intention of being party to any Jiang-Dalai Lama dialogue. That truly would be an unacceptable intrusion. Nor does it support Tibetan independence. But officials, including the President, see no better time than now, when U.S.-China relations are strong, to advance the issue of Tibetan autonomy. The problem, as always, is getting the balance right. Tibet is a minor, but volatile issue, and so many important items--trade, non-proliferation, maintaining a normal relationship--are on the Washington-Beijing agenda that pushing too hard on Tibet could prove dangerously counter-productive.After all, from Beijing's vantage point, the potential long-term benefits of accommodation are ephemeral while the more immediate risks look all too real. Why let the Dalai Lama go home where, despite his pledge to play no active political role, he would inevitably stir up passions in followers who after four decades have largely despaired of seeing him again? Also, if Tibet gets autonomy, even if limited to maintaining its unique Buddhist culture, would not other Chinese regions seek similar arrangements? Could that lead to special administrative regions like Hong Kong sprouting up all over the motherland? That would not be an attractive option to Chinese leaders, who remember too well what happened the last time they let a hundred flowers bloom.Despite the White House session, designed to show Beijing that the U.S. intends to pursue the matter this week, the last thing the administration wants is confrontation. It has been reluctant, for example, to fill the currently vacant State Department post of special coordinator for Tibet, which China objected to when it was created in 1997. And even Clinton's meeting with the Dalai Lama was a semi-hypocritical drop by in which he did not formally receive the spiritual leader but instead joined a meeting he was having with Hillary Clinton. Spokesmen said only that the U.S. supported dialogue but took no stance on their modalities or substance. That's the way to be an effective interlocutor.The Dalai Lama left town saying he had too wide a gulf with China and wanted to build trust before negotiating. Sometimes more silence is useful, was his exit line. That's the way to start a dialogue.  |  2