Expert Calls Obama, Dalai Lama Meeting Significant

President Obama met Thursday with Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. China has criticized the meeting because it regards the Dalai Lama as a separatist leader. Robbie Barnett, director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University, says the meeting is more significant than previous presidential meetings with the Dalai Lama because it came amid increased Chinese rhetoric.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

To talk about the broader context of that White House meeting, we're joined by longtime Tibet scholar Robbie Barnett. He is director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University. Welcome back to the program.

Professor ROBBIE BARNETT (Modern Tibetan Studies, Columbia University): It's a pleasure to be here.

BLOCK: I wonder if you see this White House meeting as something beyond a set piece. I mean, is it more than a diplomatic (unintelligible) tradition, something that could actually lead to substance?

Prof. BARNETT: It's very hard to see it having immediate outcome in terms of a resolution for the Tibet problem in China. That seems to be a very long-term issue that is certainly going to change bit by bit, if at all. But it is much more significant than previous meetings, I think, between presidents of America and the Dalai Lama because the Chinese very significantly increased their rhetoric to try to stop any meetings like this.

Two years ago, after the last meeting with President Bush, which was a public meeting when the Congress gave a gold medal to the Dalai Lama. That really upset the Chinese. So this meeting today really marks an end of that run of success for the Chinese. The Americans really have called their bluff on this issue.

BLOCK: The meeting, of course, that was postponed, President Obama didn't meet with the Dalai Lama the last time he was in Washington, so that he wouldn't jeopardize the November summit in Beijing. Some would say that was a real capitulation. He should've met with him then.

Prof. BARNETT: Well, it's actually turning out to look like something of a success, strategically for the American side. It was rather badly handled at the time. So it certainly came across as bad for President Obama's image. But he's picking up now by, in effect, saying to the Chinese, look, I gave you concessions in the past. I delayed this meeting. I warned you months before that it was going to happen. And this time I've also kept it in a private room. So, I have done some of the things you asked, but I'm still doing it. So, it actually is making Obama look not just strong, but sort of calculated, in a sense, considerate.

BLOCK: When you think about what would need to change, what ideally would change in the relationship between Tibet and China, you spoke earlier about the Tibet problem, what would you say needs to change and what's the U.S. role in that?

Prof. BARNETT: Well, it's actually surprisingly simple. And that's really I think why the Americans do have a kind of unusual role here, which is not such a bad one. It's not a really heavy-handed one, which is that this is a problem that's very easy to solve because it has a leader who wants to make compromises. It has he's very much supported by people who seem to support non-violence across the majority.

So, it's not that far off a solution, unlike most problems we see in the world today, which were a long way off that. So the Chinese only need to back off the kind of very heavy-handed cultural and migration polices they have, they could tone those down very, very easily if they thought it was worth doing.

BLOCK: When you say China would need to back off its cultural and migration programs, explain a bit what that would mean exactly.

Prof. BARNETT: Well, there are really two issues on the Tibet question. One is the historic issue: Was it independent? Was it part of China? Well, the Dalai Lama is sort of getting up on that, at least in terms of the future. He won't change the historical claim that he has. But he says he's quite accepting now that it will be part of China, and he will accept the Communist Party as ruling China.

The second question is the one that's really easier for China to solve and really very quickly, which is in 1994, they began very tough policies banning the worship of the Dalai Lama. There's no real rationale for that kind of policy in China. Actually, it's technically illegal in Chinese law to do that.

BLOCK: If you look, though, at the Chinese rhetoric surrounding this White House meeting with the Dalai Lama today, they are angry. They say the meeting was a wrong decision. They've been warning about consequences. Do you see any movement on the Chinese side toward any sort of concessions on Tibet?

Prof. BARNETT: Well, it's very tricky to say. They seem to have very hardline people in at the moment. And it looks like the leadership is not strong enough to shift even if its advisors were telling it to shift from this hardline approach. And they need to find a way to do that without losing face. That's very difficult for them. And that's the big double bind from the Dalai Lama. Is he putting too much pressure on them so that they can't concede? Well, at the moment they're in no mood to concede. But it's pretty certain that at some point they will think about giving something away. We just don't know whether that will happen in time.

BLOCK: In time for what?

Prof. BARNETT: Well, in time before the Dalai Lama dies.

BLOCK: Robbie Barnett, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. BARNETT: My pleasure.

BLOCK: Robbie Barnett is director of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University.

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