When the Dalai Lama went to the White House last month, the media focused on China's predictable outrage at President Obama's guest. Others were disturbed by images of garbage sacks that the White House had failed to remove near the exit where the exiled Tibetan leader emerged to meet the press. But few noticed the significance of a gift that President Obama gave to the Dalai Lama -- telling the story of a relationship forged between the US and the Dalai Lama before Beijing asserted control over Tibet.
President Obama's present was an elegantly-bound exchange of letters between Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman and the young Dalai Lama, who was then the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet prior to the Chinese takeover -- when Tibet was effectively independent. This symbolic expression of de facto state to state communication is an important counter-point to China's increasingly aggressive assertions of its ownership of Tibet over hundreds of years, not to mention its belligerent rhetoric about the Dalai Lama.
The letter from the Dalai Lama to President Truman that is included in the gift emphasizes the "good relations between the governments of the USA and Tibet", appeals for these relations to be promoted further, and emphasizes the importance of peace. The letter was aimed at expanding and developing these relations as the threat of Chinese influence over Tibet intensified.
Combined with the strong statement of support issued by the White House press office, this is a gift that appears to deliberately emphasise not only the past relationship between the American and Tibetan peoples beginning with Roosevelt (seven years before the Chinese invaded) but perhaps the importance of the relationship to come.
It could also signal a particularly personal interest from President Obama, who seems to wish to be viewed as a partner with his fellow Nobel Peace Laureate, the Dalai Lama, in the promotion of global peace and tolerance. President Obama's signal regarding the Dalai Lama's legitimacy as a representative of the Tibetan people comes at a time when the Tibetan leader's direct engagement with the crisis in his homeland has never been so urgent or important, although it has so far been blocked by the Chinese government.
In an attempt to reassure China that they do not seek to undermine its sovereignty over Tibet, many Western leaders claim to be meeting the Dalai Lama purely in his 'religious' as opposed to 'political' capacity. For example, the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown met the Dalai Lama at the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Palace, in the presence of various religious leaders, rather than at 10 Downing Street. But other than a statement after the event by Kurt Campbell, US Assistant Secretary of State, that the meeting had been "spiritual," the White House did not characterize the President's meeting with the Dalai Lama as "religious."
The US is not the only government to have dealt with the Dalai Lama in Tibet before the red flag was raised above the Potala Palace. Britain had a special relationship with Tibet before the Chinese invasion, with an influence that no other Western country enjoyed. This mattered to Tibet, because British influence across the Himalayas was an important counterweight to China's.
A few days after President Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama, sons, daughters, great-nieces and other relatives of British officials stationed in Tibet in the 1930s and '40s gathered together to commemorate a unique anniversary - of the Dalai Lama's enthronement on February 22, 1940, in Lhasa.
It was a cold February day when five-year old Tenzin Gyatso was enthroned as the 14th Dalai Lama. He had been recognised in September 1939 as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, a towering figure in Tibet's history who had died suddenly six years before. The Tibetan cabinet (Kashag) sent a telegram to the British Foreign Office with the news, concluding with the memorable words that there was not "the shadow of a doubt" that this little boy from Amdo, eastern Tibet, was the true incarnation.
At the enthronement, the young Dalai Lama made a deep impression on the British delegation. At the anniversary ceremony in a room in the British Parliament opposite Big Ben, Dick Gould read out the words of his father, Sir Basil Gould, who was present at the time, about the Dalai Lama: "It was his presence. His infallible skill of doing the right thing at the right time. [This five year old child] was the only person among many hundreds who never fidgeted, never wavered."
Seventy years later, the exiled leader of Tibet, now 75 years old, was pictured in the White House, with a cup of tea and biscuit on a napkin on the table before him, engaged in warm and earnest dialogue with the President of the United States.
Dick Gould, whose father had established the British Mission in Lhasa in 1936, said at the enthronement anniversary: "It is a tragedy for the Tibetan people that this wise and intelligent leader, His Holiness, was not destined to lead his country through the 20th century and beyond. But Tibet's loss has been the world's gain. In a world torn by violence, he stands for peaceful solutions. Let us pray that his way may yet prevail."
President Obama appears to agree.
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