The Dalai Lama (Artwork by Mayank Chhaya)
It is hard to decide whether it is the Dalai Lama’s enduring consequentiality, China’s unquestionable global clout or Britain’s diminished power. Perhaps it is a combination of all three that is compelling Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne to preemptively declare that Prime Minister David Cameron has no further plans to meet the Dalai Lama as he attempts to open a new chapter in relations with Beijing.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4 Osborne said, "We have said the prime minister is not planning to meet the Dalai Lama. But of course he did meet the Dalai Lama, as previous British prime ministers have. We understand we have different political systems and we raise the issues we have about that but we have an incredibly important economic relationship and I want to make sure this week we take the next big step in Britain and China’s relations with each other so that we can create jobs and investment in each other’s countries."
Incidentally, he is leading a high-powered British delegation to China currently to, among other things, lay the groundwork for Cameron’s upcoming visit. China had swiftly downgraded its relations with Britain after Cameron met with the Dalai Lama in May last year.
I have no dispute with countries fine-tuning their policies to be in sync with the ever changing geopolitical realities. As the chancellor of the exchequer it is quite becoming of Osborne to do what is in the best interests of Britain. Apparently overriding concerns expressed by Britain’s Foreign Office, which would like him to be cautious while dealing with Beijing, Osborne has decided that economics trumps everything else. If it means reassuring Beijing that Cameron would have no further meetings with the Dalai Lama, then he would do it unequivocally.
The Dalai Lama’s office is not expected to offer any reaction on Osborne’s comments simply because it has always been the Tibetan leader’s position that he would not like to inconvenience anyone. In this case or in any case for that matter, the Dalai Lama has steadfastly stayed away from demanding any official meeting with any head of state at the cost of that country’s national interests. He understands that he cannot possibly impose himself on those who are under geopolitical pulls and pressures.
My takeaway from Osborne’s comments has to do with how the Dalai Lama remains of such consequence despite now having officially given up all his political powers. If the Dalai Lama has no standing as China would have the world believe, then why bother whom he meets and who meets him? Conversely, if he continues to be the decisive voice on the question of Tibet, why not acknowledge that fact and engage him directly? After all, he cannot be both so consequential and inconsequential at the same time. It is quite extraordinary for a single individual, not to mention a Buddhist monk who is a refugee with no formal powers of any kind or state to back him up, to continue to influence the world’s discourse with China.
In explicitly saying that Prime Minister Cameron has no further plans to meet the Dalai Lama and with China regularly demanding that Britain shun him, both parties are only reaffirming the Buddhist monk’s decisive influence on Sino-British relations. I wonder how realistic it is for Britain to make that open-ended commitment that its prime minister is unlikely to meet the Dalai Lama for the foreseeable future. More importantly, is China really swayed by such reassurances?
There is something both amusing and pathetic about this once world’s preeminent power, which liked to boast that the sun never set on it because of its global empire,having to display such abject deference. But then countries cannot afford to think in emotional terms. They have to be realistic and often expedient.