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The Dalai Lama Dilemma

In October, the Dalai Lama was slated to attend the 14th Summit of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates in Cape Town, South Africa. Yet for the third time in five years, the South African government barred the Dalai Lama from entering their country. Conference organizers had no choice but to cancel the event.

The global reaction was swift and fervid.

“I cannot believe that the South African government could shoot itself in the same foot thrice over. I believed that our government had a proper pride,” South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared in a published statement. “I am ashamed to call this lickspittle bunch my government”.

“President Jacob Zuma’s ANC covenanted with the People’s Republic of China to betray the principles of a free, just, and fair society by denying the Dalai Lama a visa for 30 pieces of silver,” proclaimed Dr. Wilmot James, federal chairman of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance party, the chief rival of the African National Congress.  “President Zuma loves money more than principles. He is willing to trade our country’s patrimony for everything we fought for, stand for, and care about”.

U.S. Nobel Laureate Jody Williams, who was scheduled to attend the Summit, was just as critical.  “This is supposedly a celebration of Mandela. I did not have the opportunity to know him, but I find it hard to imagine he would feel like celebrating the fact that South Africa has sold its conscience and soul to China”.

While direct evidence of Sino-South African collusion is elusive, almost all experts believe the Dalai Lama’s denied visa request was the work of Chinese brinkmanship and of a South African government eager to please its largest—and most powerful—trading partner.

It is well known that the Chinese government is highly sensitive with regards to the Dalai Lama and his message of an independent Tibet.  This is not the first time political leaders in Beijing have tried to restrict the Dalai Lama’s influence and counter his cries for Tibetan independence.  In 2011, South Africa—again buckling under pressure from China—denied the Tibetan leader a visa to attend the 80th birthday of Archbishop Tutu. Policymakers in Beijing decided that stopping a simple birthday celebration warranted the flexing of China’s mighty diplomatic muscle.

Both in private and in public, many officials have expressed dismay that China so willingly contorts its foreign policy to satisfy its anti-Dalai Lama fervor.  As Sophie Richardson, China Director for Human Rights Watch, told The Politic, “The Chinese government continues to startle the rest of the world with just how incredibly fixed their positions on certain issues are, and with their anachronistic, retrograde tactics and rhetoric”.

“The Chinese now refer to the Dalai Lama as a terrorist,” said Richardson. The Chinese pressure “governments [and] other kinds of prominent civic or religious leaders [against] meeting with him. This is their way of trying to destroy his legitimacy”.

While experts such as Richardson have come to expect this sort of heavy-handed behavior from China, South Africa’s recent actions represent a stinging betrayal of its own history and values, and a troubling sign of the influence China now apparently wields over the South African government. Many have responded with incredulity to President Jacob Zuma’s willingness to trade South African sovereignty for the diplomatic favor of the Chinese government.

South Africa’s recent actions represent a stinging betrayal of its

own history and values, and a troubling sign of the influence China

now wields over the South African government.

“You can just imagine how much pressure they must have come under to bar a Nobel Peace Prize winner from attending an event,” said a former high-ranking South African official, who asked to remain anonymous.  “I am sure these were not decisions taken lightly.  They were probably quite painful for the government officials concerned.  This just really shows you how much arm twisting can go on when investment and trade relations are at stake”.

Over the past decade, South Africa has become increasingly dependent on Chinese trade and investiture. Last year alone, bilateral trade jumped 32% to $24 billion, enough to cement China’s status as South Africa’s most critical trading partner. Sino-South African trade has become vital to the South African economy, as Zuma’s government struggles to recover from the global financial crisis. China has injected $10 billion in foreign aid into the South African economy, and its Industrial Commercial Bank holds a 20% stake in South Africa’s Standard Bank.

China has taken additional steps to nurture South Africa’s burgeoning economy.  In 2010, South Africa was invited to join the BRIC group of nations, a consortium of emerging national economies comprising Brazil, Russia, India, and China. While South Africa’s economy is considerably smaller than those of the other member nations, the country boasts a number of distinct economic strengths. South Africa possesses a wealth of natural resources—including iron ore, gold, diamonds, manganese, and platinum—its banking and finance system is well established, and its regulatory framework is fair and consistent.

China’s investment in the so-called “Rainbow Nation” has already yielded political and economic dividends. South Africa’s entry into the Chinese campaign against the Dalai Lama is just one example of these payoffs. Yet China has benefitted most not from political support from Pretoria, but rather from access to South African resources.  As the former South African official noted while describing China’s economic strategy with South Africa, “One of the things that a lot of people haven’t figured out is that China has been buying up raw materials, natural resources, and commodities, and signing futures contracts for those things…They’ve got it all planned, and they are sowing up these resources with much longer term vision than anybody else”.

“Chinese companies are investing all over the world,” confirms Sarah Labowitz, a former U.S. State Department official.  China’s continued economic growth relies on its ability to secure critical resources and materials, many of which South Africa can provide. The Chinese government has come to realize that facilitating South Africa’s growth is essential to facilitating its own.

China has not limited this strategy to South Africa. In fact, the case of South Africa is emblematic of the larger forces undergirding Sino-African relations in general.  China’s trade with all of Africa now totals $200 billion per annum, and this volume is only projected to grow. China has surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner and has used this newfound influence to advance Beijing’s political and economic agenda.

Considering the diplomatic pressures at play, it become easier to sympathize with South Africa’s decision to deny the Dalai Lama a visa. “There was very little practical downside to denying the visa, whereas the downside to letting the Dalai Lama in would have been substantial,” explained the former South African official.  “It’s much easier to stick to all of your principles when you’re the opposition.  The responsibilities of power involve all sorts of trade-offs, and I guess you could see this decision in that light”.

While this particular incident has generated substantial publicity, South Africa is not the only country to have met the Dalai Lama with a frosty reception—or no reception at all.  Since 2000, the Dalai Lama’s meetings with Heads of State have declined steadily from eleven in 2001 to just two in 2013.  While this can be partially attributed to the aging Dalai Lama’s reduced travel schedule, there is no doubt that Chinese pressure has also played a significant role.

South African President greets President Xi Jinping of China in March 2013

When British Prime Minister David Cameron met with the Dalai Lama in 2012, for example, China sharply curtailed their bilateral diplomatic relations with Britain.  It took the Cameron administration nearly a full year to rectify the situation and restore Sino-British relations.  Since then, Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague has publicly promised to “properly handle [Tibet related] issues on the basis of respecting China’s concerns”.

Even the United States felt compelled to deviate from its traditional greeting for international leaders when the Dalai Lama visited in 2011—instead of meeting in the Oval Office, President Obama hosted the Dalai Lama in the Map Room. Neither photographers nor reporters were allowed to document the meeting. And, at the end of his visit, the Dalai Lama was directed to exit the White House through a back door normally used by household staff.

That nations as wealthy and powerful as the United States and Britain would succumb to Chinese desires speaks volumes about China’s growing influence on the world stage.  It also makes South Africa’s decision to deny the Dalai Lama entry seem far less radical.

As China continues its steady march towards establishing the world’s largest economy, the international community must evaluate how to effectively balance Chinese trade with the preservation of national sovereignty.  The United States and other global players must consider how best to blunt China’s meteoric rise in Africa and facilitate meaningful growth—both democratic and economic—throughout the continent.  As the United States and Europe continue their pivot towards Asia, China represents a threat to security and stability not only due to its burgeoning military prowess, but also because of its ability to coerce foreign governments and swiftly quell dissent.  With entire national economies dependent on Chinese trade, there is no telling what policy concessions Beijing can extract from nations such as South Africa.

As the former South African official remarked: “I fear this is not a unique situation—that this is a slippery slope”.

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