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Tibet’s Hail Mary pass: Lobsang Sangay’s risky White House visit

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This past weekend’s visit to the White House by Lobsang Sangay, head of the Tibetan government in exile (as President of the Central Tibetan Administration), will be viewed by many as an American act of courage and a win for Tibet. Such meetings traditionally signify great prestige and strong cooperation — even allyship — with the U.S. government. As China stands credibly accused of mounting human rights abuses on the rooftop of the world, the Trump administration’s welcoming of the Tibetan political leader may be viewed as a daring rebuke of Beijing and an important boost to the Tibetan cause. Unfortunately, it is not an act of U.S. bravery, and — at best — a Pyrrhic victory for Tibet.

For the U.S. it is consequential that the visit came during President Trump’s lame duck period. And it occurred well after it became apparent that he would be the first occupant of the Oval Office since George H.W. Bush not to meet with the widely revered spiritual leader of Tibet, His Holiness the Dalai Lama (perhaps, not coincidently, unlike his predecessors, Trump has also been the target of the exceedingly forgiving Tibetan’s mild criticism, regarding the American President’s “lack of moral principle” and implicitly his “old thinking”). In addition, the meeting took place while legislation to sanction China over the hardening of its approach to Tibet remains stalled in the Senate (even as similar bills related to Hong Kong and Xinjiang became law during the last two years). 

The visit is then a clear example of too little, too late for America’s Tibet policy under the current administration. Despite it taking place, Trump is clearly no friend to Tibet. His surprising popularity with some in the Tibetan community is based more upon his proverbial bark than his actual bite. Nonetheless, elements of such Tibetan sentiment likely informed Sikyong Sangay’s decision to go to the White House.

Given the dire situation facing Tibetans inside China, such an action is understandable. As the saying goes, desperate times often call for desperate measures. Is this not why quarterbacks throw Hail Mary passes in the waning seconds of football games? And, similarly, why soccer and hockey teams occasionally pull their goalies as time expires?

Miracle throws occasionally find their target. Winning goals from improbable players do sometimes hit the back of the net in the dying embers of the game. But, more often than not, such Quixotic efforts fail. In sports the damage caused by such failures is trivial. The stakes for Tibet are ever so much higher.

The danger is that Lobsang Sangay may have made himself a pawn in a larger, and currently highly unstable, game of great power politics, one being driven by a volatile American leader. In so doing, he might have unwittingly made Tibet more (rather than less) vulnerable. As Xi Jinping has repeatedly demonstrated, he has no reservations about cracking down on Tibetans — and his China is sure to be angered by this turn of events and could even move in their wake to further ratchet up pressure on Tibet.

Rather than pursuing dalliances with the Trump administration in its waning days, President Sangay would be well advised to direct his attention moving forward toward President-elect Biden.

The same holds true for Chinese democracy activists, Hong Kong protest leaders, and Taiwanese officials.  All too often over the last few months we have seen representatives from each of these camps throw their lot in with the current administration. A handful of high profile Chinese dissidents have boisterously expressed their admiration for the outgoing American leader (even after he appeared to lose his reelection bid). Reports have also circulated that a vocal minority in Hong Kong have continued to profess their support of Trump even after his electoral defeat. A series of unprecedented — and ongoing — visits by U.S. officials to Taiwan suggest that there are some in Taipei who continue to seek advantage for the island while Trump is still in office.

Such maneuvers — while of questionable merit before Nov. 3 — are especially risky now, as the Trump administration enters its twilight hours. The American president already had a poor record of delivering on promises made, now there is even less reason to expect he will follow through. So each new flirtation between his administration and China’s foes does little more than aggravate Beijing (without garnering any concrete and lasting returns from the U.S.).

The more prudent course of action is to begin building bridges with the incoming U.S. administration. Those intent on furthering the causes of Tibet, Chinese democracy, the rule of law in Hong Kong, and protecting Taiwan, and standing up to Xi’s China, will accomplish much more in the coming days and weeks by securing a place at the incoming American leader’s table than by continuing to mill around the outgoing one’s seat.

Responding to China will clearly be at the center of President-elect Biden’s foreign policy agenda, and re-establishing America’s credibility will ground such an effort. Within such a turn, much is to be gained by China’s discontents as their concerns about Beijing will be taken more seriously than has been the case over the past four years, and the American response to them is likely to be both more consistent and substantial than it ever was within Trump’s White House.

Allen Carlson is an Associate Professor in Cornell University’s Government Department and currently serves as Director of Cornell’s China and Asia Pacific Studies program and advisor of its East Asia Program.

Tags Central Tibetan Administration China Dalai Lama Donald Trump Lobsang Sangay Tibet Tibetan independence movement

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