Meeting with the Dalai Lama can come with a price

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Marco Werman: That was President Obama at a prayer breakfast today in Washington. Wow, he only said “um” once there. But he will later a lot more on The World. So, Obama mentioned the Dalai Lama there, but what may seem like a harmless shoutout to the Tibetan Buddhist leader could actually have serious ramifications, and to explain why, we’ve got Isaac Stone Fish on the line. He’s the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Isaac, China always makes a stink when world leaders meet with the Dalai Lama. What is the big deal from Beijing’s perspective?


Isaac Stone Fish: Beijing views the Dalai Lama as someone pushing for Tibetan separatism, what they call “splittism,” which is a nice coinage there. They believe that his policy is to split Tibet off from the rest of China, and because of that, whenever any world leader or VIP meets with the Dalai Lama or says anything in support of the Dalai Lama, the Chinese will stand up and oppose, and sometimes actually exert financial sanctions of financial punishment against the person or the country who did that.


Werman: What are those financial sanctions or punishments consist of, and could that be applied to the US for this breakfast this morning?


Stone Fish: In October 2010, two European scholars published a paper called “The Dalai Lama Effect on International Trade,” and they found that when a top leader, say a head of state or a monarch, met with the Dalai Lama, that country’s exports to China would drop at least 8.1% for roughly two years. So, when you add up all of the people who have met with the Dalai Lama over the years, that’s hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. That said, the United States--Obama has met with the Dalai Lama in the past, but he didn’t meet with the Dalai Lama this time; he gave him a public shoutout, they appeared at the same place, but they didn’t actually appear to meet. And besides, the relationship between China and the United States is so important and encompasses so many other things, that it’s unlikely that this stink will last for long.


Werman: Will the Chinese government kind of sense that nuance, that “Well, they didn’t really meet, and they didn’t really talk but they were in the same room together”?


Stone Fish: I think they will. I think they’re very carefully attuned to the diplomatic positioning behind these ideas, the fact that Obama did give him a little namaste, holding hands together, to the Dalai Lama but they didn’t actually meet, there’s no photographs of them together, and I think to them, that’s a better outcome than them actually sitting down together and Obama publicly seeming to support the positions of the Dalai Lama.


Werman: You’ve written about how Norway’s relationship with China changed after the Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. What price did Oslo pay? Was it diplomatic and financial?


Stone Fish: It was a pretty heavy price, and it was very sad for Norway, which is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, a stable Western democracy, to really have so blatantly--I hate to use the word kowtow--but they apologized to the Chinese basically. It doesn’t seem like much, but their fish exports, Norway exports a lot of fish to China, and I think the numbers dropped by I think around 60%. Norwegian experts had difficulty getting visas to China, and Norwegians really felt like they were frozen out of the international scene. So, when the Dalai Lama tried to come back to Norway in 2014, they didn’t let him meet with the prime minister.


Werman: Let’s look at the other side of this coin. The countries that, for whatever reason, do not meet with the Dalai Lama, what do they gain from China or what do they lose?


Stone Fish: I think it’s less gaining something in terms of China but not losing trade, not having their state companies’ exports curtailed, not getting publicly criticized by the Chinese, and what they lose is that very intangible moral rectitude, the ability to say “Yes, we support human rights because we’re publicly meeting with the Dalai Lama.” So, that’s the price that they pay every time the leader of a European country or Zuma of South Africa, every time he publicly says something against the Dalai Lama or refuses to meet with him, their moral stock goes down just a little bit.


Werman: Isaac Stone Fish, Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Always good to speak with you. Thanks.


Stone Fish: Great to talk. Thank you.