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Dalai Lama envoy: Canceled meeting was ‘misread by the Chinese’

China’s response to the upcoming meeting in the White House between President Obama and the Dalai Lama depends on whether Communist Party leaders believe their protests will produce a concession from the White House, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader’s top envoy said Tuesday. "Of course they will make a lot of noise. They do that ...

China's response to the upcoming meeting in the White House between President Obama and the Dalai Lama depends on whether Communist Party leaders believe their protests will produce a concession from the White House, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader's top envoy said Tuesday.

"Of course they will make a lot of noise. They do that all the time. But they are also rational," said Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, one of the senior envoys of Tenzin Gyatso, also known as the Dalai Lama. Gyari has been dealing with Chinese on contentious issues for decades.

"The moment they think they can get something out of it, they will become relentless. But the moment they realize it's not going to work, that's it," he said.

China’s response to the upcoming meeting in the White House between President Obama and the Dalai Lama depends on whether Communist Party leaders believe their protests will produce a concession from the White House, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader’s top envoy said Tuesday.

"Of course they will make a lot of noise. They do that all the time. But they are also rational," said Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, one of the senior envoys of Tenzin Gyatso, also known as the Dalai Lama. Gyari has been dealing with Chinese on contentious issues for decades.

"The moment they think they can get something out of it, they will become relentless. But the moment they realize it’s not going to work, that’s it," he said.

The meeting comes after a previous meeting between the two Nobel Peace Prize winners was canceled during the Dalai Lama’s last trip to Washington last autumn. That meeting was scuttled in part because the Obama administration did not want to upset U.S.-China relations ahead of the president’s trip to China last November. There was also a hope that the Chinese would respond favorably.

But Gyari said he now has deep reservations about the decision to scuttle that meeting.

"We had a lot of misgivings, but in the end that was a decision we took together because we saw some merit in it," he said. "Our intentions were noble, but I think it was misread by the Chinese."

The envoy said the decision created a setback for Tibet that showed itself in similar actions by the Danish and French governments. But Gyari said the greatest concern about the cancelled meeting last year was the effect it had on the morale of Tibetans inside Tibet.

"Inside they get only some information … this was devastating," he said. "As long as the Tibetans inside Tibet know that their spokesperson, their leader, has the opportunity to intersect on their behalf at the highest level, no one wants to band their head, to be arrested or tortured. But when they think that’s not happening, that sometimes can actually lead to destabilization."

Gyari urged foreign governments not to yield to Chinese pressure about hosting the Dalai Lama, saying that it was equivalent to agreeing with Beijing’s depiction of the lama as a dangerous radical whose real goal is Tibetan independence, not greater autonomy and religious freedom within China.

"Whenever any world leader refuses to meet with His Holiness because of China’s protest of him being a ‘splittist,’ if they oblige they must understand they are then reinforcing or they are subscribing to the Chinese accusation that His Holiness is a splittist. Simple as that."

Much of the coverage of the Obama-Lama meeting will focus on optics, analyzing the atmospherics and symbols surrounding the summit to infer what the White House is thinking about engaging the exiled Tibetan leader.

For example, the meeting will be held in the map room at the White House, not the private residence or the Oval Office, as some early reports indicated. There is no announced press conference and no planned joint meeting with Obama, the Dalai Lama, and congressional leaders, as was held in 2007 when Congress awarded the Dalai Lama the congressional Medal of Honor.

But those details are not that important to the Dalai Lama, Gyari said, who just values the opportunity to meet the U.S. president and share views and ideas. He did acknowledge that everyone isn’t so unconcerned with such details.

"A lot of people do care … the Chinese care because sometimes the substance and form are of equal importance," said Gyari. "And the Tibetans care."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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