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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Donald Trump's inauguration signals the start of a new and more unstable era

A century in which the world's hegemonic power was a rational actor is about to give way to a more terrifying reality. 

For close to a century, the United States of America has been the world’s paramount superpower, one motivated by, for good and for bad, a rational and predictable series of motivations around its interests and a commitment to a rules-based global order, albeit one caveated by an awareness of the limits of enforcing that against other world powers.

We are now entering a period in which the world’s paramount superpower is neither led by a rational or predictable actor, has no commitment to a rules-based order, and to an extent it has any guiding principle, they are those set forward in Donald Trump’s inaugural: “we will follow two simple rules: hire American and buy American”, “from this day forth, it’s going to be America first, only America first”.

That means that the jousting between Trump and China will only intensify now that he is in office.  The possibility not only of a trade war, but of a hot war, between the two should not be ruled out.

We also have another signal – if it were needed – that he intends to turn a blind eye to the actions of autocrats around the world.

What does that mean for Brexit? It confirms that those who greeted the news that an US-UK trade deal is a “priority” for the incoming administration, including Theresa May, who described Britain as “front of the queue” for a deal with Trump’s America, should prepare themselves for disappointment.

For Europe in general, it confirms what should already been apparent: the nations of Europe are going to have be much, much more self-reliant in terms of their own security. That increases Britain’s leverage as far as the Brexit talks are concerned, in that Britain’s outsized defence spending will allow it acquire goodwill and trade favours in exchange for its role protecting the European Union’s Eastern border.

That might allow May a better deal out of Brexit than she might have got under Hillary Clinton. But there’s a reason why Trump has increased Britain’s heft as far as security and defence are concerned: it’s because his presidency ushers in an era in which we are all much, much less secure. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.