NOBEL laureates gathered in Rome last Friday were dismayed that Pope Francis had surprisingly refused to grant an audience to the Dalai Lama, so as to not incur Beijing’s inevitable wrath. Earlier the meeting was to be held in Cape Town, to commemorate the first death anniversary of Nelson Mandela. The South African government, however, which is facing a serious economic downturn and is heavily reliant on trade and investment with Beijing, refused to grant the 79-year old Dalai Lama a visa. The decision outraged South African Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, who denounced the government as having played into Beijing’s hands.
The Vatican’s decision to turn down a meeting between two spiritual leaders is reflective of the enormous clout Beijing enjoys and the forceful manner in which it can convey its displeasure. While the Vatican did not specifically mention Beijing as the reason behind the Pope not meeting with the Dalai Lama, Mark Woods, writing in the Christian Today newsletter, justifies the decision as being “simple diplomacy.” Woods explains that if a meeting took place, it would “antagonize China” and “serve no purpose.”
Pope Francis understandably wants better relations with China, which is estimated to have several million practicing Catholics, including a large underground following. Furthermore, the Vatican is locked in a bitter dispute with China as to who controls the Catholic Church. Beijing refuses to accept papal authority on the appointment of bishops. There are, also, reports of churches and crosses being burnt, including the persecution of Catholics. Pope Francis is clearly aware that the Catholic community would, most certainly, face repercussions of his action, if he were to meet with the Dalai Lama, and that Beijing has never been persuaded by human rights arguments.
It is understandable that Pope Francis faced a genuine dilemma. Vatican officials would have briefed him about the increasing manner in which Heads of State/Government have been distancing themselves from the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing regularly refers to as “a pervert,” “a splittist” and “a criminal.” He would have been informed that in 2010, President Obama met with the Dalai Lama in the White House Map Room and that after the meeting ended, the Dalai Lama was made to exit the White House through a back entrance. Beijing was, nevertheless, infuriated and made its disapproval known to Washington in blunt terms. In 2012, similarly, the British Prime Minister and his Deputy met with the spiritual leader in the crypt of the Saint. Paul’s Cathedral, assuming that it was the discreet thing to do as it would not attract unnecessary media publicity and speculation. Beijing strongly condemned the meeting as “interference in China’s internal affairs” and a clear indication of support for Tibet’s independence. It, simultaneously, said such meetings would seriously jeopardize UK-China relations. A worried British Prime Minister and the Foreign Office had to make considerable efforts to assuage Beijing and furthermore agreed not to meet with the Dalai Lama again.
All this must have weighed heavily on Pope Francis’ mind when he took the decision not to meet with the Dalai Lama. The Vatican diplomatically announced that the Pope would not be meeting with any of the Nobel laureates who had gathered in Rome. Notwithstanding the Pope’s pastoral dilemma, his decision has shocked many who question whether it can legitimately be justified as the right thing to do, especially by a spiritual leader who enjoys considerable moral authority. If anything, the decision by the Pope is an unambiguous snub but, more tellingly, it is also an implicit endorsement of continued human rights violations by Beijing and furthermore, an acknowledgement that threats and arm-twisting works. Chinese leaders will, most certainly, gloat at what they have achieved.
Beijing’s growing assertiveness and influence in global affairs is clearly apparent. Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines are seeing this play out all too well in the Pacific through the dispute on territorial waters. For India, this raises serious questions. Following the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the Dalai Lama fled to India and was given asylum. Since then, he has referred to India as his second home. Large numbers of Tibetans live in settlements all over India. As a spiritual leader and guru, the Dalai Lama has a considerable following across the globe. It was his efforts at peace that brought him the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the huge popularity and respect he enjoys, he is not unaware of his increasing isolation by global leaders since being in Beijing’s good books appears to be the global fascination. It remains to be seen how India reacts. It would be a sad day, indeed, if New Delhi also lacks moral fiber and toes Beijing’s line.
Amit Dasgupta is a former Indian diplomat who until recently headed the Indian Embassy in Manila as ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary.