Later this week, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will lead a delegation of seven European commissioners to Beijing for talks on a range of bilateral issues. Following China’s crackdown in Tibet, it will be important for the EU chief to put on the table concrete proposals on human rights. He will also need to convince the Chinese leadership to begin talks with the Dalai Lama.
For more than a year, Europe’s leaders have proved unable to coordinate their positions on Tibet, the Dalai Lama and China. The Chinese leadership exploited this opportunity and picked on individual countries – first lashing out against German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and now at French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
So Mr. Barroso will start his visit start with a distinct disadvantage. Not only will he be representing a fragmented European Union, but he will be expected to put forward a common European position on human rights, while surrounded by a group of commissioners focused mainly on economic issues.
Moreover, the EU delegation will face a unified Chinese leadership, which has shown little room for flexibility towards its international counterparts.
In the past few weeks, Tibet may have been dropped from the main Western news headlines, but lasting changes have taken place inside China. Western demonstrations – and calls for an Olympic boycott – have strengthened the hands of Chinese hardliners who now argue that there is an international conspiracy to damage China.
Yet all the cards are not in Beijing’s favor. It is clear that the political will to protest inside Tibet has not abated, particularly among the monastic communities. And in spite of a Chinese blackout, reports of arrests in and around monasteries have trickled out to the international media.
The result is a tie. Beijing cannot pretend that Tibetans are indifferent to the Dalai Lama and his spiritual rule. Nor can they ignore the West’s concern. But Tibetans cannot even begin to think about a violent strategy, which would only seal their fate with the Chinese government and public.
In this context, the Barroso visit presents the European Union with a chance to push for international access to the Tibetan areas, and for starting a proper dialogue between Beijing and the Dalai Lama.
At the same time, the EU should ask the Dalai Lama to be more specific in his own proposals and vision for Tibet.
To succeed, there also needs to be an acknowledgement of the need to treat China respectfully, if only to avoid more negative developments inside China and live-down ideas that the West is out to get China whatever she does.
After China’s public relations disaster, progress must be made on both sides, lest the Olympic turmoil will go down in history as a lost match for China and a last stand for the Dalai Lama.
The European Union should use the Barroso visit to solicit both sides to consider the positive implications of declaring a tie.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.