Democratic and Republican members of the US Congress have urged President Joe Biden to meet with the Dalai Lama in a bid to ensure that Tibetans’ rights remain high on the agenda, even as it carries more risks on the troubled ties between Washington and Beijing.
Since George HW Bush in 1991, every sitting US president has met the Tibetan spiritual leader except Donald Trump as the now 86-year-old Dalai Lama slows down his once frenetic travel schedule.
In similar letters, 38 senators and 27 House members also called on the United States to press China to resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama’s representatives that last took place 12 years ago.
“President Biden can demonstrate the importance of His Holiness’ moral message and example by inviting His Holiness to meet in the Oval Office,” the Senate letter said.
A focus on Tibet would be a “tangible manifestation of a principled foreign policy that prioritizes human rights and the quest for human dignity,” said the letter led by Democrat Patrick Leahy and Republican Marco Rubio.
If the Dalai Lama is unable to travel, the senators said Biden should send Vice President Kamala Harris or another senior official to see him in India, where the Nobel Peace Prize winner has lived since fleeing a Chinese offensive in Tibet in 1959.
China’s lack of interest in dialogue has led many observers to believe that Beijing is waiting out the Dalai Lama, hoping that the global movement he has built for greater rights in Tibet will wither away without the leadership of the Buddhist monk turned cultural icon.
The American legislators encouraged the Biden administration to keep insisting that China not intervene in the selection of the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, amid fears that the officially atheist government will seek to impose and groom a pliant successor.
The letters were addressed to Uzra Zeya, the under secretary of state for civilian society, democracy and human rights, ahead of her expected appointment as the Biden administration’s coordinator on Tibet.
The Dalai Lama did not visit Washington, DC, during Trump’s presidency and the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted travel, limiting opportunities for a meeting.
But the monk had also openly criticised the famously sensitive Trump, saying he lacked “moral principle” on issues from climate change to migrants’ rights.
John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser turned critic, in a book said Trump objected when Nikki Haley, then US ambassador to the United Nations, requested to meet the Dalai Lama, fearing she would jeopardise a trade deal with China.
Trump later became a vociferous critic of China.
Both the Trump and Biden administrations have stepped up criticism over Beijing’s treatment of another minority, the mostly Muslim Uighurs, describing its campaign as genocide.