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Editorial: Playing down Dalai Lama drama

February 27, 2010

Japan Times
February 25, 2010

Much to China's displeasure, U.S. President
Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama last week.
As anticipated, the Beijing government complained
bitterly about the meeting and demanded that
Washington take steps to put substance behind the
U.S. call for a truly constructive and
cooperative relationship with China. But the
bluster was more muted than many anticipated and
reveals that China may have a nuanced
understanding of U.S. politics. If that is so,
then there is hope that the United States and
China can forge a durable relationship that can
survive the inevitable challenges and stabilize,
rather than upset, relations in Asia.

Then President George H.W. Bush in 1991 became
the first sitting U.S. president to meet with the
Dalai Lama. Since then, three other presidents
have met the spiritual leader on 11 occasions.
While U.S. officials recognize the Dalai Lama as
the head of a spiritual community and a recipient
of the Nobel Peace Prize, China instead sees him
as "a splittist" determined to win Tibetan
independence. The Beijing government interprets
each high-profile meeting with the Dalai Lama as
a means of enhancing his legitimacy and makes
every effort to deter them. World leaders who
have met him have become targets of considerable
invective and further retaliation. Several
governments have declined meetings rather than court China's wrath.

Mr. Obama was originally supposed to meet the
Dalai Lama last fall, but postponed the meeting
so that it would not cast a shadow over, or
derail, the president's trip to China in
November. The rescheduling was a show of respect
for Chinese sensitivities, but not a show of
deference to Chinese interests. When the meeting
did take place, it came hot on the heels of the
announcement of the U.S. decision to sell arms to
Taiwan, a move that was anticipated but still
provoked anger from Beijing. Observers worried
that China might try to exploit its growing
regional influence, and its mounting irritation
at what it regards as just grievances, to shift
the baselines for engagement with the U.S.

But Beijing's response has been restrained. A
Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the meeting
"grossly violated the norms governing
international relations." U.S. Ambassador to
China John Huntsman was called into the Foreign
Ministry, where he heard an official complaint.
But the visit of a U.S. aircraft carrier to Hong
Kong went ahead as planned and there have been
few other reprisals. This cooler approach is a
welcome change to the heated rhetoric that has been issued in the past.

China must recognize that the U.S. is prepared to
engage it as a partner, but that does not mean
that Washington will defer to Chinese interests.
Mr. Obama followed precedent by keeping his
meeting with the Dalai Llama low-key: not in the
Oval Office, and without photographers. The
statement the U.S. issued after the meeting
pointedly noted Mr. Obama's "strong support for
the preservation of Tibet's unique religious,
cultural and linguistic identity and the
protection of human rights for Tibetans in the
People's Republic of China," but also said that
both men agreed "on the importance of a positive
and cooperative relationship between the U.S. and
China." Beijing could hardly ask for more.

China's restrained response is a departure from
its assertive and muscular foreign policy of
late. During negotiations at the Copenhagen
climate conference, Beijing played hardball. A
deal was struck but China was seen as a reluctant
participant. The ongoing dispute over the
appropriate value of the renminbi is another
source of friction, as are the cyber-attacks that
have been launched against U.S. companies and
government facilities. There is also a perception
that Beijing is not pushing Pyongyang to do more
to honor its denuclearization pledges, and that
China is reluctant to back United Nations sanctions against North Korea.

 From Beijing's perspective, the readiness of the
U.S. to sell arms to Taiwan and its support for
the Dalai Lama show a disregard for the nation's
"core interests." Chinese leaders worry not only
that such gestures may provide a boost to
independence activists in Taiwan and Tibet, but
also that failing to take a hard line in response
to the U.S. could expose them to criticism from nationalists.

Each of these issues is part of a larger
narrative. Every incident is important not only
in its own regard, but for its symbolic
significance. The danger is that the Chinese
government will feel pressured to take a hard
line on every issue, blowing them all out of proportion.

The response to Mr. Obama's meeting with the
Dalai Llama suggests that the Chinese leadership
understands the stakes. Chinese officials have
long insisted that the U.S. has to avoid
deliberate insults and allow China to "keep
face." But Mr. Obama, for his part, cannot be
seen as bending to Chinese pressure. If Beijing's
bluster over the meeting was merely aimed at
placating a domestic audience, then the two
countries should be able to move on and get to
work on the real issues that demand cooperation.
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