13 February 2010

Historical Analysis: US, China, Iran, & the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

President Obama and the Dalai Lama are to meet on Thursday, February 18, in the White House Map Room, four months after a previous meeting between the leaders was postponed in October, 2009 during the Dalai Lama's visit to Washington. As the Washington Post notes, "That made October the first time the Dalai Lama has come to Washington without meeting with the American president since before 1991, when he met with George H. W. Bush."

*Following this visit, the Dalai Lama will present lectures in Los Angeles and throughout Florida on the need for compassion in the pursuit of world peace. See more information on his CA speech here, and more on his FL speech at Florida Atlantic University here.

The emphasis, I think, should not be on the fact that President Obama and the Dalai Lama did not meet the first time around, but on the situation surrounding their upcoming meeting in less than a week. An historical analysis presents reasons to conclude that; (a) their interaction is representative of a necessary, established tradition of protecting human rights, and (b) this meeting comes at an pressing time in US foreign relations.

Human Rights

His Holiness, as he is called by followers, visits the democratic nation of the United States to, for one, be a messenger of good news as all religious leaders ought to be. In particular, I think his journeys here are a continuation of his peaceful campaign for compassion against violence, which rightly includes the building of relationships with Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

Throughout the past two decades, American Presidents have welcomed the Dalai Lama as a champion of human rights, and as an advocate for the defense thereof. Each time a meeting has been held with both parties, representatives of the Chinese Government have issued statements of disapproval and warnings of forthcoming strains in relationship. In terms of international relations, the
US does, in fact, understand Tibet as part of China, but recognizes the struggle to establish the full granting and practice of human rights.

After meeting with President H.W. Bush in April 1991, President Clinton heard arguments from Tibetan delegates that China was undertaking
"population transfer into Tibet of alarming proportions" intended to reduce the Tibetans to a minority in their own region. This time, President Obama, I think, will receive a similar message from China that his predecessor, President W. Bush did in 2007: "China's display of anger [will be] demonstrated by its [non-support of sanctions] on Iran's nuclear program." A 2008 meeting between the Dalai Lama and President Sarkozy resulted in the same behavior: China cancelled a summit with the European Union.

Economic Growth

We must consider, in light of this possibility, whether President Obama may have successfully reduced this chance of occurrence through his diplomatic discussions with Chinese leaders in November 2009. A released White House statement did report that Obama's "visit to China has demonstrated the depth and breadth of the global and other challenges where US-China cooperation is critical." Although his postponment of his meeting with the Dalai Lama did seek to ensure a strengthing of US-Sino relations, "Zhu Weiqun, a Communist Party official who manages Tibet affairs, said on Feb. 2 that the meeting would 'seriously undermine the political foundation of Sino-U.S. relations" and "not help the United States surmount the current economic crisis."

We must consider also, in light of the upcoming meeting, whether the Dalai Lama's
Nine Rounds of Dialogue with Chinese leadership, who oppose his pursuit for autonomy in the Tibetan homeland, has either added fuel to the fire or stabilized disagreement of and/or anger at the US-Tibet relationship. Recent reports give overwhelming reason to think his efforts have only resulted in the former. In addition to China's dissatisfaction with the ninth round, the selling of US weapons to Taiwan, who is also viewed by China as a part of its political territory, has set a stage for further confrontation in the coming months.

So it seems that, yes, feelings of anger and actions of ignoring the US are bound to happen again as they have done historically. But, the current situation is strikingly different than before when considering the two most important diplomatic relations at stake between the US and China; one, economic prosperity - in particular trade - and two, military defense - in particular nuclear warfare.

For one, as discussed by columnist Frank Ching from the China Post;
"...the United States was in a much stronger position vis-a-vis China in the 1990s. Beijing was fearful of losing its most-favored-nation trading status and
desirous of American support for it to join the World Trade Organization. Now, Beijing is Washington's biggest creditor and the United States wants China to continue to lend it money by buying Treasury bonds."
China is the single biggest holder of US Treasuries, owning at least US$776.4 billion of US government debt at the end of June 2009. Moreover, not only has China just recently surpassed Germany, the now-former Exportmeister, as the world's third-largest economy as a result of its tenfold growth in three decades, but the nation "will become the 'pre-eminent world commercial influence' by 2035 when it surpasses the U.S. economy," according to a report released in 2008 by Albert Keidel at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Indeed, despite global trends of slower growth, China's economy continues to "expand strongly in emerging markets."

In comparison, Chinese Gross Domestic Product has expanded 10.7 percent over the last four quarters, while United States Gross Domestic Product has expanded .10 percent over the same time period. The growth is attributed, in many ways, to China's ability to export, which gives indications of strong domestic market trends. As we are well aware, the US ability to grow over time will be strained by the onslaught of debt (i.e. monies from China), although the dollar will gain advantage over the euro the undergoing
economic struggle of Greece and concern in general for the PIGS - Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Greece. Both factors will certainly add to China's arm-twisting; although, improvements seem to be forthcoming .
*For further explaination of how China has succeeded in expanding its growth, see the section titled, "Another Look at China's Success Story," in Jeffrey Sach and Wing Thye Woo's report published by the World Bank Group, entitled, China's Transition Experience, Reexamined).

National Defense

Secondly, as Iran continues to claim it will now begin to enrich uranium - which indicates their ability to soon become a nuclear nation - the US needs strong, multilateral support as it moves forward with sanctions.

There is "overwhelming evidence" that Iran has been and is a sponsor of terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan (although presumably now more cautious than before), and failing and/or faltering to dry Iran's thirst for nuclear weapons will not only greatly alter the geo-strategic threat throughout Israel and Palestine, as well as shift the power constructs of the Middle East, but redefine US foreign policy. Furthermore, I think it will allow Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network to propagandize US efforts - or the lack thereof. The prospect of AQ obtaining nuclear, biological, and/or chemical weapons is always on the front burner, and it still remains a possibility we must safeguard against that Iran can transfer [at least some] resources to AQ.

President Clinton angered China in 1995-96 during his efforts to deter Iran from opening its energy sector to foreign investments, resulting in the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, and President W. Bush experienced the same in his actions to pressure North Korea, sell the first part of the $6 billion worth of arms to Taiwan, and previously continue sanctions on Iranian banks and nuclear programs. James Dobbins, an analyst at RAND, thinks there are good chances during President Obama's continued talks with China that they will yield sanctions on Iran by abstaining and "not standing in the way of them."

Both China and Iran will be watching President Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama, and walking the line of good relations with China is connected also to forthcoming dealings with Iran, especially when considering the US role as a broker in the Arab-Israeli peace process. As stated in the Joint Experts' Statement on Iran (November 2008);

"Any U.S. moves towards mediating the Arab-Israeli crisis in a balanced way would ease tensions in the region, and would be positively received as a step forward for peace. As a practical matter, however, experience has shown that any long-term solution to Israel’s problems with the Palestinians and Lebanon

probably will require dealing, directly or indirectly, with Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran supports these organizations, and thus has influence with them."

This statement, I think, shows how far-reaching dealings with China can be when considering the connections to national defense, incorporating both Iran and nuclear warfare and terrorist networks. (I do not think it is an overstatement; rather, I think it shows the effects of systems-oriented globalization - where one region is affected by other regions while simultaneously affecting another - and increasing alterations in the Middle East region, especially the strings that are attached).


It is a shame, plain and simple, that the meeting with the Dalai Lama cannot be nothing other than a celebration of human rights. I think President Obama's strong personality will certainly carry this tone during the established tradition, but it remains a part of the equation that how he handles US interests in this matter will impact future economic and military relations with China and Iran, and subordinately, their associates (such as those mentioned here) North Korea, Hamas, and Hezbollah. President Obama may be planning to take another strategy from the Joint Experts' Statement by using the upcoming February 18 meeting to "Support human rights through effective, international means," in that; "While the United States is rightly concerned with [China and] Iran’s record of human rights violations, the best way to address that concern is through supporting recognized international efforts."

Perhaps the White House Map Room has further directions on this matter stashed away somewhere.


  1. To be honest, I read the arms sale and the meeting to be a shot back at China for vocally expressing hostility to any stronger sanctions on Iran.

    As an aside, I'd suggest that readers treat the report on China's position in 2035 with caution. If you go back 25 years from any date in history I think you could safely say that the people 25 years ago had no idea what the world would look like, with the possible exception of some of the more cynical thinkers in 1920*.

    *And even then they probably wouldn't have predicted that the United States, infamous for wanting to stay out of European wars, would be one of the two major nations in 1945.

  2. Also, when speaking to Chinese officials "unofficially", they feel that their long-term future is still in doubt. The Real Costs of the last few decades of expansion have been quite high and these Real Costs appear to be putting a ceiling on future growth. Also, from Beijing's point of view, looking "out" from China, they see the NATO economies controlling the world's economy for the entire century, and they wonder why they can not act-out their rightful role as hegemon in East Asia. I have been told that it is quite frustrating at the CPC Central Committee level that the USA continues its role as regional hegemon in spite of the great strides made by the PRC. In Beijing the US still appears as the dominant East Asia Power.

  3. You really think that Iran is interested in giving nukes to AQ?


  4. @Steve. To be honest I consider that to be fairly unlikely myself, thanks for pointing it out. People always raise that specter, but you notice that no nation has actually done that to date (that we know of). The nuclear powers seem to view nuclear weapons as a deterrent and/or a bargaining chip (North Korea). I honestly can't see the Iranians handing even 'dirty' weapons over to a group that would be outside their direct control, much the same as the U.S or China.

  5. For several years panicky posts about “China Rising” have been all the rage; but here in Silicon Valley, where we have a large, hyper-dynamic Chinese community, practical intelligence is easy to come by. Last year over dinner with a friend, who is a Shanghai-born U.S. citizen, I heard a story that keeps me well grounded.

    Her father is a senior CPC official, and he often discussed with her his concern about the internal limitations of Confucian concepts that are deeply embedded within Chinese culture. The father often told the daughter that until China regularly produced Nobel Prize winners, or at least legitimate nominees, he could not feel that China will have “arrived”. As a politician he often expressed his fear that China might never catch-up with the “Anglo-Saxons” who were continually reading Japanese and German “mail” during WWII.

    Personally, I think there is some politically incorrect merit to this idea. If I am planning the extremely urgent future of China, and I am sitting in Beijing contemplating my options; I am also wondering about the scary fact that my opponent just showed me how to shoot mosquitoes out of the night sky using lasers.


  6. If I am sitting at the Pentagon, I am worried that China showed it can shoot down satellites, given how dependent we have become upon GPS. Still, they have no navy to speak of.

    Their economic numbers are cooked a bit. They have internal issues to worry about. Iw ould not worry about the 2035 date.


  7. Shooting down the military GPS system would be an Act of War. Although war with the PRC must be planned for, such a war is currently thought to be highly improbable and many stages of escalation away.

    This is an interesting post nonetheless. When doing Threat Identification vis-à-vis the PRC, we cannot allow this low probability, high impact threat to confuse us. More important, for example, is the aggressive Intellectual Property theft at which the PRC is unrivaled.

  8. Gyre, the arms deal was authorized under the W Bush Administration. If this is a "shot back" then it originated, perhaps, at the end of his term. Further detailed analysis is needed to establish this, though. It would be interesting if so, and we should see what weapons were sold.

  9. @ Dan P. I was assuming this as well. Presidents disagree and criticize each other at every opportunity, but you'll notice that they usually carry on the policies and practices of the previous administration. Partially because a huge amount of that policy has been locked in place and is outside the control of the president.

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