With Sino-French relations still strained since the meeting of President Nicolas Sarkozy with the Dalai Lama in December last year, Willem van Kemenade argues that the Netherlands may be heading for turbulence in relations with China as well over the planned visit of the exiled Tibetan leader this coming June 4.
(By: Willem van Kemenade, Senior Visiting Fellow Clingendael Diplomatic Studies Programme)
The Dutch situation differs from the French as no meeting with the head-of-state Queen Beatrix is scheduled, Holland does not hold the presidency of the European Union – as Sarkozy did during the second half of last year – and there is no spoiled atmosphere in the run-up to the visit as there was with France last year when Sarkozy threatened to boycott the Olympics unless China restarted negotiations with the Tibetan government-in-exile on “meaningful autonomy” for the Himalayan region before the opening of the Games.
The Dalai Lama will arrive in Amsterdam on June 4th, the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Beijing massacre at the invitation of a number of Dutch Buddhist and Tibet-related organizations and lecture on patience and compassion. No meeting with Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende has been scheduled yet, but it hasn’t been ruled out either. However, the Dalai Lama is expected to meet with foreign minister Maxime Verhagen and selected members of parliament.
After the serial Dalai Lama visits to Europe last year, Tibet seems to have become the main political issue in EU-China relations or as one Chinese academic wrote last week: “Sino-EU ties have been hijacked by the Tibet issue”. On March 10, the 50th anniversary of the failed (CIA-sponsored) Tibetan Uprising against Chinese rule, the European Parliament reiterated Sarkozy’s earlier call for renewed negotiations on “real autonomy”.
All EU-member-states recognize Tibet as part of China and China rejects any outside pressure for negotiations with any part of its sovereign territory on revising the internal relationship between the central and local governments. Resolutions of the European Parliament to that extent have no standing in international law and are under the current constitutional set-up of the union non-binding. This may change once the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, but it is unclear when that will be. Chinese experts in international politics and law believe that the European Parliament, lacking hard power and pending the constitutional enhancement of its powers, is eager to expand its soft power and international role to rival the United States Congress.
If the European Parliament persists in this course of action, it is bound to lead to long-term confrontation and poisoning of relations. China’s public relations methods in presenting its policies towards Tibet leave much to be desired and Western understanding and knowledge of Tibet is equally poor. It is little understood that China cannot accept the Dalai Lama’s proposal for enhanced autonomy, because it doesn’t apply just to the current ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’, but to the outlying areas, inhabited by Tibetan minorities in four neighboring Chinese provinces: Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan as well. The Dalai Lama delivered this proposal in a speech to the European Parliament in 1988 for which he got the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
The idea was attractive to Western audiences, particularly after the Chinese crackdown on the student rebellion in June 1989, when it was generally assumed for some time that China, like the Soviet Union would collapse. It did not and 20 years hence it is a re-emerging superpower that cannot and will not yield on this issue, as it would lead in the short term to the break-up of four Chinese provinces in Western China, perhaps followed by a ‘Bosnia-style’ partition of the multi-ethnic Xinjiang region, and in the longer term even to the wholesale disintegration of China. Moreover, these outlying Tibetan areas, dubbed “Inner Tibet” by the British while they were creating a sphere of influence in Tibet during the final decades of the “Raj” a hundred years ago, have never been under the rule of the Dalai Lama, but under local abbots, Mongol and even Muslim warlords.
It is time that Europe sets aside Tibet as a major contentious issue in its relations with China and focuses on the global economic crisis, Afghanistan, anti-terrorism and global security in general and climate change etc. as vital areas of strategic cooperation with China. The Dalai Lama is a prominent religious leader, but only of six million Buddhists. He deserves respect, but he is not a head of state.
It is desirable that the EU agrees on a union-wide “Code of Conduct” that bans meetings by presidents and prime ministers who pretend they receive him “as a religious and not a political leader”, while using his Hollywood- and Messiah-style popularity for domestic political, or China-bashing purposes. Let the Dalai Lama be hosted by religious leaders, parliamentary leaders and NGO’s and stop the misguided practice of using him as leverage on China. If rows over Dalai Lama visits to EU-member states continue to reoccur, the EU-China partnership will go further downhill and this will be gravely detrimental to both sides.
(this article has been published on 1 april 2009 as Clingendael Commentary . - with special thanks to the author Willem van Kemenade and Clingendael for their permission to republish this article on Geledraak.nll )