Vikings vs the new economic superpower: the Tibet issue in Sino-Danish relations by Clemens Stubbe Østergaard, Aarhus Univ.

14. Dec 2009

Danes love to have their cake and eat it. Or as the Danish expression goes: to blow air and yet keep flour in your mouth. In the past, before globalization, we could say one thing at home, and do something else abroad. Or we could rely on being so insignificant that others did not bother to react to contradictory policies on our part. Being a small country, though, has never prevented us from imagining ourselves a great power – perhaps remembering Viking times. A number of times we accordingly collided with reality, got into wars above our head, and lost parts of our former territory to neighbouring countries.


Today we exercise this great power mentality a little more carefully: we usually side with the strong, and feel a boundless moral superiority towards the rest.


Our policy around the Tibet-issue has mirrored both principles. When the United States, with its 1-China policy, did not meet the Dalai Lama, we did not either, when they started to meet him in the 1990s, we did too. As late as 2003 this still went well. As for moral superiority, we rightly criticized Beijing’s policies in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but unfortunately based on such caricatures of China and of Chinese and Tibetan history that already for this reason our words carry little weight with the Chinese side.


Maybe it is the caricature that has prevented us from seeing that things were changing in the world. Just as the US needed China in the Cold War, and thus did not step on Chinese core interests, we today find that we need China to solve not only the problems of the global economy, but also most of the other global problems we are faced with. New ‘wars’ have replaced the Cold War, and the fact that China is now the world’s second largest economy, and a very strong actor in international organisations, means that once again we have to respect what they regard as core interests – in the case of Tibet, the question of sovereignty. 


This has been clear to the smarter part of Danish officialdom, but not to the country’s politicians. There were many warning signs: Gordon Brown in mid-2008 felt China’s pressure and made sure that he met the Dalai Lama at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s palace, clearly calling him a religious leader; Sarkozy in late 2008 did not take this precaution, and ended up having to make a declaration quite similar to the one Denmark just made; the Dutch cabinet decided that Prime Minister Balkenende in June would not meet with the Dalai Lama ‘because it would risk harming relations with China’; the New Zealand PM John Key read the signals from China and just declared: “I do not meet with every religious leader that comes to town”, nor would his other ministers. Obama of course has so far postponed any meeting.


Denmark was caught out. A new prime minister was faced with the daunting prospect of a motion in parliament forcing him, in case he followed the advice of his officials and declined to meet the DL. And here we are at the root of the problem. No politician has dared to, or been able to, explain the situation to his colleagues, the media and public opinion. In the vacuum, the international and national Tibet Lobby’s story has reigned supreme. Distorting history by calling Tibet an independent country, when no country in the world ever formally or diplomatically recognized it as such. Comparing the Chinese reclaiming Tibet in 1950 to Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait, when anyone can look at the many world maps showing Tibet as part of China, even in the period between the fall of the Chinese Empire in 1911, and the return to a unified China in 1949. Autonomy under Chinese suzerainty was the name of the game.


But at the same time, a large part of the Danish public and media has been ‘in denial’ in the face of Chinese economic and political development. We prefer to think of it as still fairly insignificant economically, and as not having moved an inch on human rights since Tiananmen. In a way it is Mao’s China we still imagine, and how cosy that is. But as was evident from Obama’s recent visit to China, the United States is in a very different place: it looks China straight in the eye as an equal and realizes the need to have it as an ally in world affairs. With the aim of stabilizing the global economy, the global ecosystem, and global security. It will be very costly if Tibet and the Dalai Lama distract the EU and China from working together.


No politician, and no media outlet (with a few shining journalistic exceptions), is ready take on itself the task of educating the public. And as long as China still has lots of human rights problems, as most developing countries do, it is possible to use this as an excuse. The same goes for China’s failed minority policies toward tibetans and uighurs. (though in all honesty not many countries can say they have completely successfully handled their minorities). There is certainly a lot to criticize and the verbal note to China in no way prevents us from doing that.


In fact we have now -after six months of icy relations – returned to a situation where dialogue can be resumed, and where we can begin again to work for the political goals of Danish foreign policy, not only as regards China, but globally. We are no longer “outside the traffic”. However, the uncertainty created meant that existing policy had to be restated more emphatically than we would have liked. We had to accept ‘oppose Tibetan independence’, while the French in April (i.e. before the Danish visit) were let off with: “France refuses to support any form of “Tibet independence” “. It has been very difficult for Danes to stomach the new reality: that we have to listen to what China identifies as its core interests, if we want the relationship to prosper. There is still a need for politicians to show courage and also update their often dismally low knowledge of China. Our criticism will have more effect if it is based on knowledge and cooperation.  


We can no longer have our Chinese cake and eat it. Or to put it another way: if diplomatic relations are like a marriage, official meetings with the leader of a government in exile is flirting heavily. A few times may be tolerated, but if it goes on the marriage may break up.

Clemens Stubbe Østergaard
Associate Professor
Department of Political Science
University of Aarhus