China Clout May Be Growing In Dalai Lama Strategy

Dalai Lama i i

The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, shown here in February, has been denied a visa to visit South Africa. Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images
Dalai Lama

The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, shown here in February, has been denied a visa to visit South Africa.

Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images
Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu i i

Nobel laureates the Dalai Lama and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu frequently appear together. In this 2006 photo taken in Brussels, the Dalai Lama presents Tutu with an award for supporting the Tibetan people. John Thys/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption John Thys/AFP/Getty Images
Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Nobel laureates the Dalai Lama and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu frequently appear together. In this 2006 photo taken in Brussels, the Dalai Lama presents Tutu with an award for supporting the Tibetan people.

John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

China has shown increasing confidence and clout in dealing with a perennial thorn in its side: the Dalai Lama.

The Chinese government has long sought to isolate the exiled Tibetan leader, who has been a popular advocate of autonomy for his homeland. Whenever the 73-year-old Buddhist leader makes a high-profile foreign tour or accepts an honor, the Chinese have tried to counter his influence.

With the world in financial turmoil, China's relative economic strength may be giving it more traction in preventing the Dalai Lama from getting a forum for his cause.

Most recently, Chinese officials reportedly pressured the South African government into refusing a visa for the Tibetan leader, who was scheduled to attend a peace conference in South Africa with fellow Nobel Peace laureates.

Critics say that Chinese influence also sidelined a California legislative resolution honoring the Dalai Lama, and Chinese leaders chided French President Nicolas Sarkozy for meeting with the Buddhist leader in December.

South Africa Bars Dalai Lama's Visit

South African officials have denied that Chinese influence had anything to do with the decision to deny a visa to the Dalai Lama. Nobel Prize winners Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop emeritus, and former South African president F.W. de Klerk had invited the Dalai Lama to a conference focusing on soccer as a way of fighting racism and xenophobia. The event was loosely tied to South Africa's preparations to host the World Cup in 2010.

South African officials have said that they didn't want controversy over the Dalai Lama's visit to overshadow the run-up to World Cup in the eyes of the news media.

If that's the case, then the decision has proved counterproductive, because it set off a media storm in South Africa when Tutu and de Klerk threatened to stay away from the conference, which has since been indefinitely postponed.

An editorial on the Web site of BusinessDay, a South African business journal, noted that a Chinese embassy official in Pretoria confirmed that his government urged the South African government not to allow the Dalai Lama into the country at a time that coincided with the 50th anniversary of a Tibetan revolt against Chinese control. It also noted that China recently set up an office in Johannesburg to handle billions of dollars worth of new Chinese investments in South Africa.

Adam Segal, a senior fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says he thinks economics alone wouldn't necessarily be enough to make the South African government avoid a diplomatic confrontation with China.

"If you stand up to China, then economically it's hard to see what damage would be done," he says.

But Segal says the South Africans want to keep the Chinese engaged diplomatically, because they want China's cooperation in solving other problems on the continent, such as in Sudan and Darfur.

California Lawmakers Delay Resolution Of Support

China may have also made its influence felt in California, where Democrats in the state assembly side-tracked a resolution marking the 1959 Tibetan rebellion that led to the Dalai Lama's exile. Although the legislature had previously passed many resolutions addressing human rights issues in countries such as Ethiopia and Thailand, leaders in the state house referred the measure on China to a rules committee, where its fate was uncertain.

The Los Angeles Times quoted the resolution's author, Republican Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, as saying that officials from the Chinese consulate in San Francisco had lobbied hard to make sure the resolution didn't come to a vote. Blakeslee showed a letter from the Chinese consul-general, arguing that the resolution could damage relations between China and the U.S. The letter contained often-repeated Chinese claims that the Chinese occupation of Tibet ended centuries of "feudal serfdom and theocratic rule."

Democrats in the assembly later said they were concerned that a state resolution would interfere with the Obama administration's prerogative of setting policy toward China.

Chinese trade and investment is important to California. Most goods shipped from China to the United States pass through the ports of southern California, amounting to billions of dollars each year for warehouse and distribution companies.

Chinese Officials Chide U.S. And France

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a strong resolution (H.R. 226) on March 11, calling on China to "cease its repression of the Tibetan people, and to lift immediately the harsh policies imposed on Tibetans." The measure, which passed by a vote of 422-to-1, was timed to mark the anniversaries of China's 1949 occupation of Tibet, the failed 1959 Tibetan revolt against Chinese rule and last year's protests against Chinese rule in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, which left more than 20 people dead.

The Chinese government immediately protested the resolution, saying "it distorts the facts of Tibet's democratic reform and glorifies the Dalai Lama." A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman accused the U.S. Congress of "rudely" intervening in China's internal affairs.

The Chinese also had strong words for French leaders after President Sarkozy met with the Dalai Lama in December. As recently as early March, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was calling on France to "clarify" its position on Tibet as a condition for helping relations between the two countries. Chinese anger extended beyond France to the European Union, because France held the rotating presidency of the EU at the time.

China retaliated by postponing a summit with the EU that had been scheduled to take place in France. The French government hasn't backed away from its support of the Dalai Lama, but it has described China as "a strategic partner."

Segal, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says he thinks the Tibetan leader will continue to pose a problem for China's relations with the U.S. and much of Europe, but ultimately, he says, "no one is willing to put anything on the line for this. The U.S. Congress is not going to stop honoring the Dalai Lama, but the Chinese know the U.S. is not going to let the Tibet issue interfere with all the other things we're working on with China."

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