Dalai Lama in the US: Opportunity for Biden in election year to make a statement to China as India watches

By Mayank Chhaya

The presence of the Dalai Lama in the U.S. after seven years, even if necessitated by an impending knee surgery, offers President Joe Biden a powerful symbolic opportunity to invite him to the White House when he signs the Resolve Tibet Act into law soon.

Even though no date has been announced by the White House for the ceremonial signing, the fact that the Dalai Lama is going to be in New York for several days creates a window of political and diplomatic opportunity for Biden in this election year. He arrived on June 23.

In and of itself the Resolve Tibet Act may not significantly change the U.S. policy on Tibet but in so much as it sends a strong message to China at a time when global power dynamics have rapidly shifted, the Dalai Lama side by side with Biden would be loaded with symbolism.

While it is true that the White House and the U.S. Congress do not necessarily work in tandem over such matters, the recent visit by a bipartisan Congressional delegation to McLeod Ganj in India to meet the Dalai Lama to present him with a framed copy of the Resolve Tibet Act certainly creates optics of unity within U.S. polity that will not be lost on Beijing.

The Congressional delegation could have presented the Dalai Lama with the framed copy of the act in New York since that visit would have been known for quite some time. Instead, the seven-member delegation went all the way to McLeod Ganj for the purpose.

The delegation consisted Republican Representatives Michael McCaul (R-TX), Nicole Malliotakis (R-NY), Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA) and Democratic representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA), Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Gregory W Meeks (D-CA) and Ami Bera (D-CA).

They also met the newly re-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi much to the chagrin of China.
Among other things the Act says it is US policy that the dispute between Tibet and China remains unresolved in accordance with international law, a point that is bound to rankle with China.

The presence of seven bipartisan US Congress members in McLeod Ganj was symbolically significant since it illustrated that Tibet as a longstanding unresolved issue has not been completely forgotten in the din of other major international crises.

The act that pressures China to resume direct negotiations with the Dalai Lama’s envoys or the democratically elected leaders of the Tibetan people is a significant symbolic win for the Tibetan community that may not make any tangible impact on Beijing. The Act leans on the Chinese government to resume negotiations which have been stalled since 2010.

Even when the negotiations stalled 14 years ago, Beijing had shown no particular inclination to resolve the Tibetan dispute. In the interregnum, the rise of and dramatic consolidation of power by President Xi Jinping since March 14, 2013, has meant that China’s position on Tibet has become even more entrenched.

In a second vote, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Resolve Tibet Act today, June 12, 2024.

At a time when Biden has sought to counter China’s growing influence in the world generally and in the Indo-Pacific particularly, to have the Dalai Lama in the White House as he signs the Resolve Tibet Act can be helpful for him even domestically.

As a foreign policy issue, Tibet has no traction among the American voters who may not even know of its existence. However, to the extent it creates the impression that Biden is sticking it to China’s President Xi Jinping it has some domestic political value.

The Act’s significance comes from the fact that apart from saying that it is US policy that the dispute between Tibet and China remains unresolved in accordance with international law, it calls for a substantive dialogue without conditions between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama or his representatives or the democratically elected leaders of the Tibetan community.

It also empowers the Special Coordinator for Tibet to actively and directly counter disinformation about Tibet from the Chinese government and Communist Party, including working to ensure that US government statements and documents counter disinformation about Tibet.

A key feature of the act is that it ejects as “inaccurate” China’s claims that Tibet has been part of China since “ancient times.”

This year marks the 65th year of the Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet in 1959 amid threats to his life. Once the act becomes a law after Biden’s signature, it is expected to have at least some salutary effect on the way China deals with Tibet during its interactions with the international community.

From the Indian standpoint Prime Minister Modi may like to keep the Tibetan dispute in his mix of foreign policy objectives while dealing with China. Its particular reference to the issue being unresolved in accordance with international law is something that New Delhi will have to work around given the historic sensitivities of the dispute.