Just as a prophet is without honor in his homeland, a holy man is mostly unwelcome in the realm of international realpolitik. In the 50th year of his exile from Tibet, the Dalai Lama is undoubtedly familiar with that unofficial diplomatic wisdom. But the idealists who supported Barack Obama in his presidential campaign received a rude lesson last week when the U.S. president declined to meet the Dalai Lama. The pragmatism that is Obama's diplomatic lodestar, it seems, comes at a price: Illusions must be abandoned. Publicly recognizing China's territorial unity is the sin qua non for effective bilateral diplomatic relations, and Obama knows it.
The Bush administration made much of the idea of China becoming a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system, but actually did little to implement that goal. But in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, and given China's vastly increased importance to global economic stability, the Obama administration must recognize China's enlarged role in international decision-making. Antagonizing China's government over Tibet is no way to get it to act responsibly, whether on economic issues or on climate change. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled her recognition of this reality earlier this year when, on her first visit to China, she deliberately avoided the issue of human rights in Tibet.
Why does Tibet matter so much to China? Sixty years ago, when Mao proclaimed the birth of a new China, he did so in the name of reasserting not only the country's independence from colonial influence, but also its unity. Coherence is a key concept in a country that, as recently as the Warlord Period of the early 20th century (1916-1928), was splintered into separate, rival regions. And territorial integrity is all the more important to the government's legitimacy now that Maoist ideology has been jettisoned.
So, while loudly proclaiming the unity of the Chinese state, China's leadership is obsessed with workinh to reduce tensions between its provinces.
Official rhetoric does not admit this fear, insisting instead that all of China's peoples, including non-Chinese in Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang, are firm and loyal patriots. But the government's frequent rotation of local officials tells a different story. Keen to prevent any coalescence of regional identity and local authority, senior officers in China's seven military districts are also transferred regularly.