Obama To See Dalai Lama, China Criticizes Meeting

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The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, is traveling to the United States to meet with President Obama at the White House Thursday. Professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom talks to Renee Montagne about the visit, and its implications for relations between the U.S. and China. Wasserstrom teaches at the University of California, Irvine and is the author of the forthcoming book China in the 21st Century.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. President Obama will meet with fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner the Dalai Lama at the White House tomorrow. The timing of the sit-down has been much scrutinized. The president declined to meet with the Tibetan spiritual leader last fall, just ahead of Mr. Obama's first state visit to China.

The Chinese government has strongly urged the U.S. to cancel this meeting and, quote, "honor its commitment to recognizing Tibet as part of China." Tibet has been under Chinese control since 1951.

For more on tomorrow's visit we're joined by Jeff Wasserstrom, who specializes in Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine.

Good morning.

Professor JEFF WASSERSTROM (Chinese history, University of California, Irvine): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, the president said last fall that he wasn't meeting with the Dalai Lama because he was headed for that visit to China and because he didn't want to effectively add another layer of tension or distraction. In your opinion, was he right in that?

Prof. WASSERSTROM: Well, I think at the time, to ensure the best possible visit, it's a very understandable thing. I think what he probably didn't imagine would be that meeting at a later time like this, it would be right after a whole series of tensions with China had snowballed.

This year alone, there's been the controversy involving Google: complaints about hacking and the threat to pull out of China. There was a recent sentencing of the prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison, which the United States - as it should have - objected to strongly. And, of course, there was the announcement of an arms sale to Taiwan.

But the fact of all of these things happening in relatively short order makes this anything but a simple time to have a visit between an American president and the Dalai Lama.

MONTAGNE: Well, what about tomorrow's meeting, then? Is this going to cause a problem with China?

Prof. WASSERSTROM: Well, I think the main thing to understand is we're in a situation where American presidents are pretty much compelled to meet with the Dalai Lama. There's been a pattern since 1990 for them to do so.

And there's a pre-scripted element to this, that the president needs to do this or he'll come in for a lot of domestic flack. The Chinese authorities need to criticize the president each time the president does this, or else they'll compromise their position domestically.

So in many ways, even though it's an international relations event, it's scripted largely by both sides playing to domestic audiences.

MONTAGNE: Although China and the U.S. and the people of China and the people of the United States view the relationship between Tibet and China very differently.

Prof. WASSERSTROM: Clearly, they do. Even though there is - it should be clear - on both sides this presumption that Tibet is part of China. But what it means to be part of China is just viewed very differently, and how Tibet is imagined in the American popular imagination. When you say that word Dalai Lama, what comes to mind is a very spiritual but also connected with the modern world activist who is promoting his countrymen's interest, but doing so in a very mild way.

Within China, the reputation of the Dalai Lama is as somebody who's a kind of backward figure, not linked to the modern world, but rather a throwback to an earlier time.

MONTAGNE: So the meeting tomorrow with President Obama in the White House, it is a tradition. He's carrying it on. Do you have any sense of what the two of them will speak to each other about?

Prof. WASSERSTROM: You know, that's really hard to say. But I think it will be a fascinating meeting in this sense. Many things about it are very predictable. But we have two people who are known for very careful and often creative uses of words. So I think the actual quality of Obama's, in particular, rhetoric will be really interesting to watch.

MONTAGNE: And will there likely be a negative impact on U.S.-China relations?

Prof. WASSERSTROM: I don't think this specific thing should be seen as having a particularly negative effect. I mean, of course, it would - from the Chinese point of view - be great if an American president didn't do this. And from the American point of view, it would be great if this could happen and the Chinese government wouldn't object.

But this is much more like something we've seen before. Although, of course, as your introduction noted, we haven't always been able to describe it as two Nobel Peace Prize-winners meeting together.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Prof. WASSERSTROM: Oh, it's been my pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Jeff Wasserstrom on the news of President Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama tomorrow at the White House. He's author of the forthcoming book, "China in the 21st Century."

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