The Strategic Import of Pelosi Meeting the Dalai Lama

The Strategic Import of Pelosi Meeting the Dalai Lama

This visit is not a political coincidence, and the optics are far too obvious to miss

Sachin KalbagUpdated: Wednesday, June 19, 2024, 10:55 PM IST
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Nancy Pelosi | File/AP

The last time then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went on a diplomatic mission, the world almost changed. It was August 2, 2022, and despite the stiff resistance from China, and a token opposition from President Joe Biden, Pelosi went ahead with her visit to Taiwan, a country China claims is its territory. Beijing’s retaliation was quick and unequivocal — several military exercises that may have given both the Taiwanese and Biden more than a few moments of anxiety.

On Wednesday, Pelosi accompanied a high-level delegation of US Representatives to meet the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama at his residence in Dharamshala (Himachal Pradesh), and we all know how much the Chinese love the saint from Tibet. Beijing had condemned the visit in advance. Pelosi’s visit comes days after the US Congress passed a bill that urged China to start a dialogue with Tibetan leaders to find a solution for the longstanding conflict.

Well, for starters, China thinks of Tibet as part of its sovereign territory, even if it has autonomous status. The Chinese even have a local name for it — Xizang. The Chinese annexed this region in the early 1950s and by 1959, after the failure of the armed uprising of 1959, the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet and take refuge in India. In 1965, the Tibet Autonomous Region became a provincial-level division of China.

The difference between Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in 2022 and the current Congressional delegation is that the Taiwan mission was a Democrat-only delegation, while the Dalai Lama one is bipartisan. It is led, in fact, by Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

The Chinese embassy in New Delhi issued a stern statement. “We urge the US side to fully recognise the anti-China separatist nature of the Dalai group, honor the commitments the U.S. has made to China on issues related to Xizang, stop sending the wrong signal to the world.”

The Americans, too, did not pull any punches. Rep McCaul said at a public function on Wednesday after the meeting with the Dalai Lama, that the Chinese had sent the delegation a letter “warning us not to come here”. He said the US stood with Tibet in what he called “its right to self-determination.” For good measure, he added, “America, the beautiful, will support Tibet to remain a powerful force as always.”

Pelosi said, “They (the Chinese) are trying to erase the (Tibetan) culture by reducing the use of the language. They are trying something that we cannot let them get away with. I'll be gracious to the Chinese people, I don't know that they're up to this, but we do know that the Chinese government is, and we do know that they must get the message. This legislation sends the message, the House and the Senate and soon to be signed by Joe Biden, the president of the United States.”

This visit is not a political coincidence, and the optics are far too obvious to miss. The American national security advisor Jake Sullivan is in New Delhi this week holding talks on expanding defence and technology cooperation. In his third term as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi will want to instill a sense of continuity in New Delhi’s engagement with Washington on key issues, including critical and emerging technologies, partnerships in climate mitigation measures, immigration, and bioengineering. His state visit to the US in 2023 was an important step in this regard.

The US wants India as a critical counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific, and in this endeavour, it is willing to even sidestep — to the extent it can — seemingly egregious acts such as the alleged attempt on the life of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, an American citizen who is a designated Khalistani terrorist in India.

America also needs India for a more strategic reason — Russia is getting far too close to China. In May this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Chinese President Xi Jinping for a record 43rd time (even if two heads of states are best of friends, they rarely meet even twice a year). This week, Putin met North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. These are not mere exchange of pleasantries. There is a strong anti-western convergence taking place, and Beijing and Moscow are at the centre of it all. North Korea is important to both to counter two important American allies in East Asia — South Korea and Japan.

Putin is effectively in charge of Russia for nearly 25 years. When he took over in Moscow, things were a little different. In 2000, a fast-rising China was, in fact, celebrating its proximity to both the US and Europe. Xi’s elevation as President changed everything. He has effectively doubled down as Russia as his prime partner in his quest to make China the primary mover and shaker of the world order.

The two-year-old trade war between Washington and Beijing has not helped matters. Simultaneously, just before the start of his invasion of Ukraine, Putin travelled to Beijing and proclaimed an “alliance without limits” with China.

Both Putin and Xi have one ambition — to end what they called American hegemony and bring the US to its knees. The US, of course, will have none of it, and as its domestic legislations in the last 20 months have shown, Biden is more than willing to take on Xi.

Here’s the thing, though. America needs strong regional partnerships. No one better than India. Biden was in New Delhi last year for the G20, and the two countries are part of the Quad (with Australia and Japan). The strongest bond, however, is the people-to-people ties. The Indian American community accounts for more than four million of America’s population, and is, by far, the most prosperous of all ethnic communities.

The US Congressional visit to Dharamshala with Pelosi, therefore, is not just a handshake between two groups of leaders, it is a hard message to Beijing to remind it that America is not done yet, no matter what the viral videos say about Biden’s cognitive decline.


Sachin Kalbag, Senior Fellow at The Takshashila Institution, is a former Washington Correspondent and editor of Indian newspapers. Email: sachin@takshashila.org.in. Twitter: @SachinKalbag

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