China 'punishes' countries that receive the Dalai Lama

Using hard power and its commercial clout, China is working to limit the Dalai Lama's sphere of global influence. That strategy is working, going by Obama's 'downgraded' meeting with the Tibetan leader.

Vembu July 18, 2011 12:49:26 IST
China 'punishes' countries that receive the Dalai Lama

A 76-year-old giggly monk in a maroon robe may appear to be an unlikely trigger for the invocation of petulant state power. But that’s precisely the huffing-puffing, foot-stomping response from China to the Dalai Lama’s official visit to the White House and his meeting with US President Barack Obama.

China has lodged formal protests with the US administration over the private meeting and accused the US of interfering in China’s internal affairs and damaging bilateral relations. The official media has also given vent to shrill denunciation of US administration. Ahead of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s upcoming visit to Shenzhen in southern China next week,  and Vice-President Joe Biden’s visit to China in August, the episode has the potential to elevate tension between the two countries.

China claims territorial sovereignty over Tibet, which it “liberated” in 1951, but Tibetan activists are campaigning against Chinese “occupation”. For India, which is home to the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan refugees, tensions over Tibet have traditionally been a disquieting precursor to a downward spiral in its ties with China.

China punishes countries that receive the Dalai Lama

US President Barack Obama received the Dalai Lama in the White House Map Room, not at the President’s Oval Office; media representatives were not allowed in. Yuri Gripas/Reuters

For all its lack of subtlety, however, China’s hysterical, over-the-top reaction to the Dalai Lama’s meetings with foreign leaders has proven to be a winning strategy from its perspective. In recent years, foreign governments have been scaling back the profile of their leaders’ meetings with the Dalai Lama. This is despite the fact that after the Dalai Lama voluntarily stepped down as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile and passed on the baton to an elected leader, he is only the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, not its temporal head.

Indicatively, Obama received the Dalai Lama in the White House Map Room, not at the President’s Oval Office; media representatives were not allowed in. In the abstruse lexicon of administrative protocol, these actions signal a “downgrading” of the meeting’s status, which should normally have mollified China. By contrast, President George W Bush met the Dalai Lama in public in 2007, and presented him with a Congressional Gold Medal; the two were even photographed beaming at each other.

The Dalai Lama effect on trade with China

China’s manner of dealing with governments whose leaders meet the Dalai Lama showcases its strategy of projecting hard power, even at the risk of being seen to be overreacting. In fact, China marshalls its commercial clout too to “punish” countries that receive the Dalai Lama, according to a recent research study by scholars at the University of Goettingen. One of the scholars, Nils-Hendrik Klann told me that countries that receive the Dalai Lama – against China’s wishes – see their exports to China contract in the two years following such meetings.

“The extent of this export contraction varies between 8.1 per cent and 16.9 per cent,” Klann pointed out.  “The effect depends on the level of importance of the foreign dignitary who meets the Dalai Lama: if the dignitary is more important, the effect is more pronounced. Exports of machinery and transport equipment to China are typically impacted.

And although the “Dalai Lama effect” on trade with China wears off after two years, there is anecdotal evidence that countries are buckling under pressure from China and are scaling down their meetings with the Dalai Lama. For example, says Klann, “the Dalai Lama is popular in South America, but around 2006, we noticed he was no longer received by a politician. At the same time, a lot of trade agreements were signed between China and these countries. It appears that politicians avoided meeting the Dalai Lama so as not to jeopardise trade agreements.”

The same, he says, was the case with Germany. “The Dalai Lama was once received by the German Chancellor, and it led to complications. The next year when the Dalai Lama went to Germany, he was met by a leader of lower rank. We surmise that countries are wary of antagonising China, although they also don’t want to be seen to be doing what China dictates.”

In other words, China’s sledgehammer tactics, and its maximalist reactions to the Dalai Lama meetings, have had foreign governments and leaders walking on eggshells to avoid upsetting China. The soft power of the giggly monk may still open doors to the high and the mighty, but the hard power of the petulant state appears progressively to be more than a match.

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