President Bush is avoiding public statements on the intensifying Chinese crackdown on Tibet, relying instead on private messages to the Chinese leadership, pressing Beijing to show restraint, allow U.S. observers into Tibet and have open trials of people arrested, administration officials said.
The president, one senior administration official said, is counting on what he regards as an "extraordinary relationship" with President Hu Jintao to help guide Chinese political leaders to change their response to anti-China demonstrations in Tibet and to begin a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader. The White House yesterday ruled out linking the Tibet issue -- or other human rights concerns -- to Bush's attendance at the Olympics this summer in Beijing.
"We think we can do more good by using those channels than by public statements at this point," the official said.
The White House's low-key approach comes as the administration increasingly needs China's help on other foreign policy issues, such as halting North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions, thus limiting U.S. leverage over Chinese human rights abuses. The economic interests of the two countries are also increasingly linked, with China a huge investor in U.S. Treasury securities.
Bush's silence is especially striking, because the three presidential candidates -- Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) -- have all issued strong statements on Tibet, with McCain even receiving a letter of thanks from the Dalai Lama. But outside experts and administration officials said that U.S. leverage on the Tibet issue is especially limited, because Beijing views Tibet as a central part of its national sovereignty.
Administration officials privately acknowledge that, on Tibet, they have little to show for their efforts. Some, in fact, suggest it is a waste of diplomatic resources because the Chinese leadership is deeply suspicious of the Dalai Lama and considers him a separatist. Meanwhile, the lack of detailed information about events in Tibet has made it harder for some administration insiders to press the case for a stronger stand against the crackdown.
Most of the contacts with Chinese leaders have been handled by the U.S. ambassador to China, Clark T. Randt Jr., a close friend of the president's, though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to her Chinese counterpart Wednesday night to underscore U.S. concern. The White House and State Department portrayed Rice as delivering a tough message in her 20-minute conversation, but the official New China News Agency suggested that Beijing was barely listening.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi "briefed his U.S. counterpart on the recent riots in Lhasa, . . . pointing out that the violent crimes were organized, premeditated and masterminded by the Dalai Lama clique, with the collaboration of domestic and overseas separatist forces seeking 'Tibet independence,' " the news agency said. Yang told Rice that "any country upholding justice will understand and support the measures taken by the Chinese government."
U.S. officials argue that, on a range of foreign policy challenges, Beijing has begun to respond to U.S. pressure. "In the past few years, on issues such as [North Korean] denuclearization, Sudan, Iran and Burma, China has adopted policies that would have been hard to imagine several years ago," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas J. Christensen told a congressionally mandated commission on Chinese power this week.
Michael J. Green, the top Asia expert at the National Security Council until 2006, said that Tibet is a much tougher issue to discuss with the Chinese leadership than other topics that have captured the attention of Olympic activists, such as China's support of the governments in Burma and Sudan. He noted that Hu was the Communist Party chief of Tibet in the late 1980s, organizing a tough crackdown in 1989 as a steppingstone in his path to power.
Green said that Rice and her predecessor, Colin L. Powell, would always bring up Tibet "in ways that are not threatening" in order to press Beijing to start a substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Hu would not respond, he said, while Yang's predecessor, Li Zhaoxing, would erupt in a tirade about how China liberated the Tibetans from a feudal Buddhist tyranny. "You would either get silence or a strong negative reaction," said Green, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Green said Bush has not been afraid to address Tibet in his private meetings with Hu and greatly angered the Chinese government when he attended a ceremony last year at which the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Still, Green noted, "at a macro level, any administration finds it hard in the last nine months to get much leverage. The other side is watching the clock."
The senior administration official said Bush and Hu talk by phone every six weeks or so and exchange regular letters. From the first time the two leaders met in 2005, the official said, Bush has frequently stressed in their private communications that it would be in China's interest to open a dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Bush's message has been, "This is a good man. This is a man you ought to be talking to," the official said. "The Dalai Lama wants to come to an accommodation with China. . . . I think it is in your interest in having the Dalai Lama visit China prior to the Olympics in 2008."
Ellen Bork, who follows events in China for Freedom House, described the administration's public commentary on the events in Tibet "horribly weak."
"The administration reaction, and its emphasis on cultural respect for Tibet, ignores the fact that China is a one-party communist dictatorship and it is hostile not only to Tibetan culture, which is rooted in religion, but also to democracy and civil liberties," Bork said. She added: "The administration's stubborn insistence that the Olympic Games don't carry political implications is naive and deprives Washington of the significant leverage a presidential visit to the Games provides."
But David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University, said that the Bush administration has well calibrated its reaction to the unfolding events. "They have left themselves room to get tougher if the crackdown gets tougher," he said.