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?