On the same day we learned of the Obama Administration’s intent to dig in its heels and refuse to share its standards for drone strike targeting with the U.S. Senate, we also learned that China had considered becoming the second nation to launch a drone-based missile strike against one of its enemies on foreign soil. Had it happened as contemplated, the attack in Myanmar would certainly have made waves in Washington. The nature of the “target” would not have been very controversial though, in that Burmese national Naw Kham is a “drug lord” blamed for the killing of 13 Chinese sailors who refused to pay protection money while working on the Mekong River in 2011. (China decided against the strike and instead captured him in Laos last April and subsequently sentenced him to death.)
But what if China decided that the Dalai Lama were a legitimate “target”?
Absurd? Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s not going to happen. Obviously assassinating the Dalai Lama would be rightly denounced as an atrocity in every capital around the world and I don’t for a moment mean to suggest that the Chinese Government would actually consider it. But would it be absurd in the sense that it would somehow be beyond the pale of world standards for drone-based assassination, that is to say, the standards of the one country that has done this – the U.S.? Well, no.
We know that the Dalai Lama isn’t guilty of terrorism, but then by now we also know that some of America’s drone strike victims weren’t either.
From official Beijing’s point of view, the Dalai Lama is an enemy of the Chinese state, a secessionist whose remarks, according to the official Xinhua news agency “remind us of the cruel Nazis during the Second World War” in advocating policies that would expel Han Chinese from Tibet, which China deems an integral part of the country. Of course, when it comes to comparing any imagined Chinese action with real life American policy, we are at something of a loss, in that, as we’ve been reminded over the course of the Senate hearings on John Brennan’s appointment as CIA Director, President Obama maintains his right to assassinate without telling us on what basis he does so.
Still, there are a few relevant things that we do know. Were we to continue our reality stretch in imagining a Chinese Government hit on the Dalai Lama, we would likely also then imagine critics jumping on the irony that, since China considers Tibet an inextricable Chinese province, it would then be killing one of its own citizens. But as we know, in that Beijing would not be going Washington one better, since when a drone-based missile killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in 2011, the President had for the first time authorized the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen – or at least the first time that we know of.
Or we might well note, that overblown official Chinese rhetoric notwithstanding, the fact is that the Dalai Lama is a man of peace who has never killed anyone or ordered anyone killed, while the people the U.S. kills via drones are men guilty of violence – terrorists. Well, not exactly right there either.
Again, while we citizens don’t currently have the right to know the basis on which the President issues death sentences, we do know that there are such things as signature strikes, which target people on the basis of suspicious activity. When Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16 year-old son, Abdulrahman, was killed in such a drone strike the month after his father, not only did he become the third American citizen known to die in that manner, but also the first never even accused of terrorist activity. And as for those who aren’t American citizens, we’ve read of the State Department joke that so far as the C.I.A. goes, “three guys doing jumping jacks” constitutes a terrorist training camp.
We know that the Dalai Lama isn’t guilty of terrorism, but then by now we also know that some of America’s drone strike victims weren’t either. So if the Chinese government were to “take down” the man it regards as a dangerous separatist would it actually be acting below the level of current world, i.e., American standards for the use of drone attacks? As the saying goes, “I’m just saying.”