Obama and the Dalai Lama – more empty words and confusion over Tibet

This exchange will achieve nothing for the Tibetans.

Perhaps it is one area where President Obama feels he can afford to act tough, but news that he will meet the Dalai Lama despite Chinese protests is hardly going to do anything to improve relations already strained over US weapons sales to Taiwan, which mainland China claims as its own territory.

Frankly, this seems to me to be the kind of empty posturing, frequently displayed in relation to the Burmese junta, that salves the consciences of the participants and makes no difference whatsoever to the people with whose plight we claim to be so concerned. To the Americans, this may simply be a meeting with the one religious leader in the world who, curiously, never seems to be subject to any kind of scrutiny -- a "living saint", as I have observed here before.

But given that this exchange will achieve precisely nothing in terms of ameliorating the lot of Tibetans (an outcome on which I would be prepared to bet a tidy sum), one can't help wondering what the point is of deliberately irritating Beijing in this way. For that it will annoy the Chinese is the one thing that is not in doubt.

History gives them good reason to resent foreign interference. Isabel Hilton wrote recently in the NS about the tensions between India and China over the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which the Chinese consider to be part of Tibet and thus their land, too.

And where do we find the origin of that particular carve-up of territory? In the Simla Accord of 1914, another treaty imposed by a western power and which resulted in the McMahon Line that divides the two neighbours.

A warning light should flash up whenever you hear of one of these lines. Think of the Durand Line that marks the boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan, or the Sykes-Picot Line that ran through the former Ottoman Empire after the First World War. Both instances of western powers creating borders that suited their purpose, but which failed to take account of local histories and allegiances.

A warm stance towards the Dalai Lama always plays well, but it is undermined by Britain's abandonment last year of the principle that China was the suzerain, but not the sovereign, power over Tibet. David Miliband dismissed the distinction as "anachronistic", but it is one that has had wide and important consequences in the region.

Thailand, for instance, only managed to resist European colonisation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by ceding territories over which it had suzerainty -- what are now the four northern states of Malaysia to the British in 1909, and Laos to the French in 1893 and 1907 -- while retaining independence for the Siamese heartland.

The distinction enshrined in the Simla Accord, that China had overlord but not sovereign status, was important for Tibet. As Steve Tsang of St Antony's College, Oxford, points out: ''Britain has officially accepted what it had acknowledged earlier; but China will use this."

So we have aggressive posturing, ignorance of history, and friendly words that are contradicted by our actions. One could shrug one's shoulders and say that this is all in the grand tradition of utterly confused western foreign policy. But surely we realise by now that how we treat China is going to have long and momentous repercussions in this century?

 

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt