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
Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Scottish Nationalist ranks

The First Minister is facing pressure to talk less about independence - and bring on new talent in her party.

She so recently seemed all-powerful, licensed to reign for as long as she chose, with the authority to pursue the return of our national sovereignty. We would then have the ability to strike our own deals on our own terms, a smaller, smarter, leaner nation freed from the stifling constraints of partnership with a much larger neighbour. There was, she repeatedly told us, nothing to be afraid of.

Now, suddenly, she is the victim of her own miscalculation: having misread the public mood, having raced too far ahead of moderate opinion, she finds herself at bay. The voters have delivered a public humiliation, while an opposition party until recently lampooned as unelectable is on the march. There is, suddenly, talk of her departure sooner rather than later.

Yes, this is a tough time to be Nicola Sturgeon…

Let’s not overstate it. The position of Scotland’s First Minister is considerably more secure than that of the UK’s Prime Minister. Theresa May wants out as soon as is feasible; Sturgeon, one suspects, will have to be dragged from Bute House. Sturgeon retains enough respect among the public and support among her colleagues to plough on for now. Nevertheless, things are not what they were before the general election and are unlikely ever to return to that happy state.

It’s all because of Scexit, of course. Sturgeon’s unseemly sprint for the indy finishing line left enough Scottish voters feeling… what? Mistreated, taken for granted, rushed, patronised, bullied… so much so that they effectively used June 8 to deliver a second No vote. With the idea of another referendum hanging around like a bad headache, the electorate decided to stage an intervention. In just two years, Sturgeon lost 40 per cent of her Westminster seats and displaced half a million votes. One could almost argue that, by comparison, Theresa May did relatively well.

For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Nationalist ranks. Tommy Sheppard, a former Labour Party official who is now an influential left-wing SNP MP, published an article immediately after the general election calling on the First Minister to ‘park’ a second referendum until the Brexit negotiations are complete. There are others who believe the party should rediscover its talent for the long game: accept the public mood is unlikely to change much before the 2021 devolved elections, at which point, even if the Nats remain the single largest party, Holyrood might find itself with a unionist majority; concentrate on improving the public services, show what might be done with all the powers of an independent nation, and wait patiently until the numbers change.

There are others – not many, but some – who would go further. They believe that Sturgeon should take responsibility for the election result, and should be looking to hand over to a new generation before 2021. The old guard has had its shot and its time: a party with veterans such as Sturgeon, John Swinney and Mike Russell in the key jobs looks too much like it did 20 years ago. Even the new Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has been on the scene for donkey’s. There are more who believe that the iron grip the First Minister and her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, have on the party is unhealthy – that Murrell should carry the can for the loss of 21 MPs, and that he certainly would have done so if he weren’t married to the boss.

The most likely outcome, given what we know about the First Minister’s nature, is that she will choose something like the Sheppard route: talk less about independence for the next 18 months, see what the Brexit deal looks like, keep an eye on the polls and if they seem favourable go for a referendum in autumn 2019. The question is, can a wearied and increasingly cynical public be won round by then? Will people be willing to pile risk upon risk?

As the hot takes about Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election performance continue to flood in, there has been a lot of attention given to the role played by young Britons. The issues of intergenerational unfairness, prolonged austerity and hard Brexit, coupled with Corbyn’s optimistic campaigning style, saw a sharp rise in turnout among that demographic. Here, Scotland has been ahead of the curve. In the 2014 referendum, the Yes campaign and its can-do spirit of positivity inspired huge enthusiasm among younger Scots. Indeed, only a large and slightly panicked defensive response from over-65s saved the union.

That brush with calamity seems to have been close enough for many people: many of the seats taken from the Nats by the Scottish Tories at the general election were rural, well-to-do and relatively elderly. The modern electorate is a fickle thing, but it remains rational. The Corbynites, amid their plans for total world domination and their ongoing festival of revenge, might bear that in mind.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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