His Holiness’ Australia-New Zealand tour proves a hit


June 20, 2007 1:01 am

His Holiness’ Australia-New Zealand tour proves a hit

Wednesday, 20 June 2007, 1:42 p.m.


Dharamshala: His Holiness the Dalai Lama returns here tomorrow after over a two-week-long triumphal tour of Australia and New Zealand. During this speaking tour, His Holiness addressed hundreds of thousands of people at a series of back-to-back public events, primarily including religious teachings and conferment of empowerments. (read article) “Wherever I go, my main interests are two: one, the promotion of human values and, two, promotion of religious harmony,” His Holiness reiterated, soon after he arrived in Perth on 5 June.

Even though China’s growing international influence spared no means in making this tour a diplomatic headache for both the countries, the groundswell of popular outrage against kowtowing to China’s economic clout compelled the prime ministers of both the countries to “consult their diaries” and squeezed out an opportune time to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard greets His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Sydney, Australia, 15 June 2007

As is usual, almost customary, when His Holiness began his two-nation tour from the capital of Western Australia, China firmly opposed the visit, saying that the “Dalai Lama is not a simple religious figure but a political exile, who has been long engaged in activities aimed at splitting the motherland and undermining national unity.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang further said that “We express our strong dissatisfaction and stern representations over Australia ignoring China and insisting on allowing the Dalai to engage in activities in Australia.”

In defiance of China’s stern warnings that the relations between the two countries could be damaged, Prime Minister John Howard hosted His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his Sydney office for about 20 minutes on 15 June. “As Prime Minister, I take the view I will decide who I will meet,” Mr Howard told The Weekend Australian before the meeting. “I listen to what other countries say but he is a figure in my view that I should meet. It doesn’t alter our foreign policy; it doesn’t alter our relationship with China. We have made it clear that we will decide who we see and I am sure the Chinese will understand that.”

According to Australia’s statistics office, the nation’s trade with China had hit $52.7 billion in the year to March, surpassing bilateral trade with Japan as energy-hungry China’s demand for Australian resources continued.

Mr Howard also said that Australia would continue to build a four-nation relationship with Japan, the US and India despite official diplomatic complaints from China – a formal demarche directed to Canberra, Tokyo, Washington and New Delhi. “Once again, close though we are to China, we do run our own foreign policy and there are some commonalities and some similarities between Australia and Japan and the US and India that don’t exist with China,” the Prime Minister said.

Sharing his views on the growing strategic and trade ties between the United States, India, Japan and Australia, which Beijing has interpreted as moves towards encirclement, His Holiness the Dalai Lama warned not to try to contain China’s economic and military rise, and urged countries to use their trading clout to pressure Beijing on human rights. “China must be brought into the mainstream of the world community,” His Holiness told Australian National Press Club on 12 June. “However … while you are making good relations, genuine friendship with China, certain principles such as human rights and also democracy, rule of law, free press, these things you should stand firm. That means you are a true friend of China.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Clark met His Holiness the Dalai Lama in a lounge at Brisbane Airport on 14 June before a flight to Sydney, which they both were on.

Speaking to Australian television, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer also said that His Holiness the Dalai Lama was a significant religious figure and it was up to Australians to decide which world figures they met. “China has a very different political system from Australia. I’ve asked the Chinese to respect the way our culture and our political system works,” he said. “It’s just not a proposition for us to refuse to give someone like the Dalai Lama a visa to visit Australia.”

Before meeting Prime Minister Howard, His Holiness met Australian main Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd late on 12 June. Later, speaking to ABC Radio, Mr Rudd said he is not surprised China has reacted so strongly, but Australia had acted appropriately. “Obviously the Chinese don’t welcome these sort of things, I understand that, but at the same time we are in our country and the Dalai Lama is a major world religious leader and it is important that we treat him with appropriate respect,” Mr Rudd said.

If Australia – which is enjoying an economic boom built on the back of record Chinese demand for natural resources – could afford the respect and hospitality an international figure of the stature of His Holiness deserves, then New Zealand, which is currently seriously negotiating a free-trade deal with China, could not be any different. Not that that will stop China from playing spoilsport. According to a statement by Green Party Foreign Affairs spokesperson Keith Locke, the Chinese Embassy has been pressuring New Zealand politicians to avoid meeting His Holiness before he visited the country. Mr Locke further said that New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark’s delay in confirming a meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama was probably because of pressure from the Chinese embassy.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama meets ministers in New Zealand Parliament on 19 June 2007

Although Prime Minister Helen Clark met His Holiness by “serendipity” for 10 minutes in an Australian airport lounge on 14 June, during which she said they discussed spiritual, non-political issues, Mrs Clark drew a lot of flak for not hosting His Holiness when he visited her country. However, even as the government tiptoed around Chinese opposition, in what turned out to be anything but “a simple exercise”, His Holiness yesterday visited New Zealand’s Parliament, and met with Foreign Minister Winston Peters, who hosted His Holiness in a private capacity as leader of the New Zealand first political party.

His Holiness also met various leaders from three political parties, including the Opposition National Party and the Green Party. “The Prime Minister has left herself open to be seen as doing China’s bidding for fear of jeopardizing a free trade agreement,” Mr Keith Locke was quoted as saying. New Zealand is aiming, by April next year, to become the first developed country to sign a free trade deal with China.

His Holiness’ two-nation tour underlined the fact that every country is hard pressed for the best way to engage a rising China. For the first time in centuries, as China stands poised to exert the international influence its size and 1.3 billion people warrant, if China is to gain the respect its leaders crave it needs to recognise that face at home and abroad are different things, The Dominion Post wrote in an editorial.

“In China, meetings between foreign leaders and the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, represent a loss of face for China’s leadership. In Western countries like New Zealand and Australia, Chinese attempts to stop their leaders meeting the 14th Dalai Lama represent a loss of face of a different kind. The more aggressive the Chinese are in their demands for the Dalai Lama to be denied access and the more defensive they are about their Tibet policy the guiltier they look.”