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Analysis: Obama-Dalai Lama meeting only option

February 7, 2010

The Associated Press
February 5, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Just a week after enraging China
with an arms sale package for rival Taiwan,
President Barack Obama risks more damage to this
crucial relationship by agreeing to meet with the Dalai Lama in two weeks.

The truth is, he has little choice.

Obama already postponed the visit once, angering
U.S. lawmakers and human rights groups. As Obama
struggles to regain his footing after political
setbacks, the last thing he needs is to open
himself up to fresh criticism that he is kowtowing to China.

So on Thursday, his administration confirmed what
had long been expected: Obama will meet with the
Dalai Lama when the Tibetan monk visits Washington on Feb. 17-18.

China immediately urged the United States to
scrap the meeting to avoid hurting bilateral
ties. China accuses the Dalai Lama of pushing for
Tibetan independence, which the Dalai Lama
denies, and believes that shunning the exiled
Tibetan monk should be a basic principle of
international relations for countries that want to deal with China.

In reality, China could not have been surprised by Thursday's announcement.

Every U.S. president for the last two decades has
met with the Dalai Lama, and those visits are
considered powerful signs of the American
commitment to human rights. Obama also told
Chinese leaders last year that he would meet with the monk.

The Dalai Lama enjoys widespread support in the
United States. High-profile celebrities call him
friend; college students flock to his frequent
campus lectures; powerful U.S. lawmakers would
call another postponed meeting a betrayal.

Obama is focused on domestic matters as he deals
with a struggling economy and a series of
Republican political victories. He does not want
to add an outcry over his snubbing the Dalai Lama again.

For the last year, Obama has faced criticism that
his administration is more eager to win Chinese
cooperation on nuclear standoffs with Iran and
North Korea and climate change and economic
crises than to hold Beijing accountable for what
activists call an abysmal rights record.

Much of that criticism stems from Secretary of
State Hillary Rodham Clinton's comments during a
trip to China a year ago that human rights should
not interfere with improving U.S.-China ties.
Activists also said Obama failed to make human
rights a big enough priority during his China trip in November.

Just a month before that high-profile trip, Obama
faced anger for putting off a White House visit
when the Dalai Lama came to Washington.

Still, he has little to show from China for his
outreach. As Beijing refuses to give ground on
many key issues, the Obama administration has
shown an increasing willingness to get tough.

In September, Obama slapped tariffs on a flood of
Chinese tires entering the United States.
Although he antagonized China and heard
complaints about U.S. protectionism, he was
praised by powerful union allies, who blame
Chinese tire imports for the loss of thousands of jobs.

In recent weeks, the administration announced the
$6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan, the
self-governing democratic island Beijing claims
as its own; Clinton urged Beijing to investigate
hacking attacks that led to Google's threat to
pull out of China; and Obama vowed to get tough
with China on a currency dispute.

Now, China's anger will be focused on the Dalai Lama's visit.

China maintains that Tibet has been part of its
territory for centuries, but many Tibetans say
the region was functionally independent for much of its history.

Tibet and Taiwan are China's most sensitive
issues, and Obama risks Chinese retaliation by stoking anger in Beijing.

Already, China has threatened to punish U.S.
companies involved in any arms sales to Taiwan
and has suspended military exchanges with Washington.

Many will be watching whether the Dalai Lama
meeting wrecks a possible visit by Chinese
President Hu Jintao to Washington in April.
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