Kowtowing to Beijing, Ignoring Tibet

The Danish government’s refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama keeps China close, but undermines Denmark’s position as a liberal bastion of democracy

The Dalai Lama arrived in Denmark today to participate in a spiritual conference. But despite his status as a Nobel prize winner and Tibetan leader, he will neither meet the Danish PM Helle Thorning Schmidt, nor the foreign minister Martin Lidegaard. Why? Fear of angering China.

The government’s refusal to meet the Dalai Lama has drawn criticism from across the political board, and the PM’s credibility has also been questioned. In 2009 she criticised then-PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen for only hosting a private meeting with the Dalai Lama, arguing that he ought to meet him as Danish leader.

Thorning-Schmidt is now being called a hypocrite for refusing to meet the Dalai Lama. But her lacking invitation rests on the government’s decision in 2010 to succumb to Chinese pressure and acknowledged the ‘One China’ policy, which declared that the the contested territories of Tibet and Taiwan are under the political control of the Chinese state.

Thorn in their side
Beijing sees the Dalai Lama as a meddling separatist and a threat to China’s control. On a larger scale though, China sees the Dalai Lama as a tool to exert its power and influence over international affairs. Despite the Dalai Lama’s international appeal, Beijing is fully aware that when push-come-to-shove, very few Internal actors are willing to cross them.

If they do, the consequences can be harsh. Norway’s relationship with China remains rocky after Chinese dissident (Liu Xiaobo) was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2010. And after British PM David Cameron met the Dalai Lama in 2012, China made it very clear that the PM would not be met by any statesmen on his visit to the country, forcing him to cancel his trip.

Cameron, Thorning-Schmidt, and Norwegian leaders all now refuse to meet with the Dalai Lama, though US President Obama has now decided, in his last year in office, to meet the Tibetan leader. It is yet to be seen whether this a reflection of American’s shifting foreign policy in regard to China, or whether Obama is acting with political impunity, knowing full-well that it is his last term in office.

China has won both a geopolitical and symbolic victory when high profile world leaders refuse to meet with the Dalai Lama – Tibet’s independence movement is stifled when world leaders refuse to speak up, while China gets to demonstrate that it is a real superpower that can sway international politics.

Vital trade partner
Foreign minister Lidegaard has defended Thorning-Schmidt’s position, however, arguing that Denmark has no chance of influencing China’s position on human rights and the Tibetan freedom if they do not have a fruitful and strategic relationship with China. While he didn’t say it, losing China as a trade partner might also worry him a little more than maintaining the opportunity to discuss human rights with the superpower.

The Danish government has been bullied into ending its relationship with the Dalai Lama in exchange for a relationship with China. It’s a pragmatic decision that keeps Denmark in China’s good books, but it may also be a slippery slope toward moral ambiguity. Is Denmark more likely to turn a blind eye to ever more concerning issues in order to appease the Mighty Dragon?

In a country that prides itself on embodying the democratic ideals of tolerance, free speech and transparency, the refusal of Danish leaders to meet with the Dalai Lama is a worrying sign. M


By Kristina Møller

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