Dissing the Dalai Lama? Not So Fast...

The Obama administration achieved a rare moment of bipartisanship in deciding not receive the Dalai Lama at the White House this week. Both Democrats and Republicans found common ground criticizing the administration for kow-towing to China. But the decision to defer an Oval Office meeting is based on careful calculation. Instead of a photo-opportunity with the Dalai Lama, the administration believes it would be better to focus on diplomacy to restart negotiations between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama’s envoys that were suspended last year.

Beginning in 2002, the Dalai Lama’s envoys made their first of seven trips to China. Initial discussions focused on building confidence. The envoys reaffirmed the Dalai Lama’s renunciation of independence in lieu of  “genuine autonomy’’ consistent with “the one-China line.’’ They insisted that China’s territorial integrity would be strengthened -- not weakened -- through power sharing with Tibetans.

The Chinese government was initially apprehensive that autonomy would be a step on the path to independence. But after repeated assurances, China’s tone and message gradually changed. They acknowledged the need to “perfect’’ arrangements for autonomy; “adapt’’ measures to local conditions; and “improve’’ the country’s legal system.

With the atmosphere improving, the envoys submitted a concept paper defining the meaning of "genuine autonomy." The paper included specific proposals for local control over governance and cultural, religious, economic, and environmental affairs. It also suggested that autonomy should be uniformly applied in all parts of western China where ethnic Tibetans reside.

Author David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding at American University. To continue reading his complete column in The Boston Globe, click here.