President Obama to Meet the Dalai Lama

Q1: Have past U.S. presidents met with the Dalai Lama?

A1: Yes. Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have all met with the Dalai Lama. Indeed, an express refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama would not only stray from established principle but would engender a raft of criticism from Congress and human rights groups that might constrain the president’s efforts to conduct a China policy that emphasizes engagement and cooperation. Past presidents have attempted to demonstrate sensitivity to Chinese concerns by meeting the Dalai Lama in private (although private meetings in the Oval Office are deemed to have great political significance to Chinese officials and have thus been largely avoided). However, in October 2007, President George W. Bush was the first president to meet with the Dalai Lama in a public setting—in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington—during the Dalai Lama’s visit to accept the Congressional Medal of Freedom on Capitol Hill. Generally, and despite attempts at nuance in timing and location of such meetings by White Houses past and present, Chinese public reactions rarely seem to moderate in response.

Q2: What is the source of Chinese opposition to the president’s meeting with the spiritual leader?

A2: The People’s Republic of China (PRC) considers Tibet to be an inseparable part of China and portrays the Dalai Lama as a “splittist” who seeks independence for Tibet. The Dalai Lama has advocated a “Middle Way” for Tibetans based on nonviolence and has maintained that he seeks meaningful autonomy for Tibet within the context of the PRC constitution. Talks between the Dalai Lama’s representative and the United Front Department of the Chinese Communist Party have yielded little on these core issues. China has always protested the Dalai Lama’s meetings with world leaders, but in the wake of protests and clashes in Tibet in March 2008, Beijing has resisted further calls for talks, claiming that the Dalai Lama is behind the separatist fighting for Tibet’s independence. Thus, the president’s meetings with the Dalai Lama have resulted in fierce protest and anger from Beijing—that the United States is trying to intervene in China’s domestic affairs and criticize its alleged human rights abuses. Over the past two years, China has stepped up pressure on Western nations to stop high-level meetings with the Dalai Lama.

Q3: Why is President Obama meeting with the Dalai Lama this month while rejecting a meeting with him last year?

A3: The White House maintains that President Obama has always planned to meet with the Dalai Lama, at an appropriate time. According to press secretary Robert Gibbs, the president is meeting with the Dalai Lama now and not last year because “…both parties thought it would be the best time to meet,” without elaborating on the specific reasoning. Each of the last three presidents met the Dalai Lama whenever he visited Washington. Media has widely speculated that President Obama did not want to meet the Dalai Lama before his November 2009 trip to China, where he saw President Hu Jintao. The Dalai Lama said that he accepts that Obama could not meet him last year “in order to avoid embarrassment to the Chinese president.’’ The decision to meet this month can also be explained in the context of strained Sino-U.S. relations, which have taken a turn for the worse over several issues including Chinese cyber attacks on Google and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. In particular, with the president’s State of the Union Address in January, where he emphasized the importance of job creation and exports in the U.S. economic recovery, Obama has publicly claimed that he will get tougher on China over its U.S. trade surplus. Thus, the changed tone and tense Sino-U.S. relations set the perfect stage for the president to meet with the Dalai Lama.

Charles W. Freeman III holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2010 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Charles Freeman
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Freeman Chair in China Studies