Why the West Speaks Softly in Response to the Chinese Crackdown in Tibet

Though human rights groups complain, there is little sentiment for an Olympics boycott.

China claims 22 deaths in clashes. Tibetan exiles say about 140.

China claims 22 deaths in clashes. Tibetan exiles say about 140.

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The spasm of political violence in Tibet—coming less than five months before China takes the world stage as host of the Summer Olympic Games—is putting the United States and other western governments in an awkward spot in their relations with a rising global power.

The diplomatic dilemma is particularly sharp in Washington. The Bush administration counts strengthened U.S.-Chinese ties as one of its main foreign-policy achievements. But the clashes and ensuing crackdown in Tibet seem to be shaking the hope of U.S. and European officials that global attention for China's coming-out party will spur political moderation and greater tolerance for dissent.

The big stakes in China have encouraged a carefully muted administration response to the Tibet issue. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others continue to issue public calls for restraint, an end to violence, and dialogue between Beijing and the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual and exile leader. The White House rules out joining in a boycott of any part of the Olympics, which Bush plans to attend.

But the administration's measured approach on Tibet is drawing fire. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, after meeting with the Dalai Lama in India, contended that Chinese "oppression" was posing "a challenge to the conscience of the world" that would sap the "moral authority" of those who fail to speak out. Activists also fault the U.S. response. "I think the adjective that comes to mind is 'feeble,'" says Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. "It's been virtually inaudible."

Discretion. U.S. officials counter that much of their activity on Tibet has been conducted in private, with calls and visits from, among others, Bush, Rice, and the U.S. ambassador in Beijing. "The Chinese don't think we're soft-pedaling. They don't like some of the things we've said," remarks a State Department official. Corporate Olympics sponsors, the official noted, are giving Beijing similar counsel.

American diplomats are also pressing for independent access to Tibet—so far to no avail—to assess the situation. As they await more facts, they contend that their approach reflects a longer-range effort to encourage a rising power to take a responsible place in the world order. Across the board, U.S. strategists are having to factor in China's growing capacity to project military power, influence energy markets, and use its diplomatic leverage.

The administration, for instance, is counting on Chinese help to rein in the nuclear challenges of North Korea and Iran, as well as apply pressure on Sudan to stop violence in the Darfur region. And then there is China's economic clout. China has become America's No. 2 creditor, not to mention its other roles as a leading source of inexpensive consumer goods and, increasingly, an investor in U.S. companies.

Such practicalities inevitably impose their own pressures. As France's outspoken foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, allowed in a television interview: "When you conduct foreign relations with countries as important as China, obviously when you take economic decisions, sometimes it's at the expense of human rights." Few officials—anywhere—want to concede as much in public.