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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Turn off the fire-breathing

February 9, 2010

By Lisa van Dusen
The Toronto Star
February 8, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- There's a tenet of
international relations theory that says
democracies don't go to war with each other,
presumably because the electoral accountability
check against undue belligerence is twice as
powerful when it applies to both sides.

The cover of this week's Economist brought that
to mind. The headline is "Facing up to China" and
the graphic depicts a big, scary dragon looming
over a President Barack Obama, apparently trying
to reason with it from an ergonomically designed spinny chair.

China's recent freak-out over a long-planned U.S.
arms sale to Taiwan, its obstreperousness at the
United Nations Copenhagen climate summit and its
chuffiness on sanctions against Iran have
underscored the non-democracy's new swagger as
the healthiest post-crash economy.

In case there was any doubt about the link
between China's role as America's principal
creditor in a new era of deficit chill, the
chronic multilateral irritant between China and
the rest of the world embodied in the person of
an aging Tibetan monk provided a vivid reminder last week.

In response to the White House confirmation that
Obama would be meeting with the Dalai Lama during
his visit to Washington Feb. 17-18, a senior
Beijing official uttered one of those quotes so
explicit in a world of diplomatic nuance that it
just jumps right off page one of the Financial Times.

"If the U.S. leader chooses this period to meet
the Dalai Lama, that would damage trust and
co-operation between our two countries," said Zhu
Weiqun, vice-minister responsible for Beijing's
contacts with the Buddhist spiritual leader. "And
how would that help the United States surmount the current economic crisis?"

The global financial meltdown that gave
capitalism such a dodgy name, saddled the new
American president with an immediate unemployment
crisis and a long-term deficit problem, and has
now unleashed a deficit-fuelled EU currency
crisis also exposed the frustrations of governing
through a slump amid the political psychodramas of democracy.

China neither had to submit its recovery measures
to a legislative process nor hold them up for
public approval. It has shrugged in the face of
Google's accusations of hackery and warned
meddlers out of its internal affairs.

Now, it will try to tell the president of the
world's flagship democracy not to meet with the
Dalai Lama because he is dangerous, which he
isn't unless you see human rights as an
existential threat, in which case you've got
bigger problems, that he is a splittist, which he
isn't, or that he possesses mad Buddha skills of
world leader hypnosis, which he doesn't.

It will agitate about the meeting's falsely
loaded optics, seeing offence in the location,
the length, the protocol and whether there will
be still cameras, television cameras or any cameras at all.

In the past decade, China has invested a lot of
diplomatic energy in reassuring its western
interlocutors that it had no hegemonic
aspirations, that it might be rising but that it
was a benign and multilaterally beneficial sort of rise.

Now might be a good time for Beijing to assess
whether that still rings true -- not because it
has to but because it can -- and to seek an
opportunity to pre-empt the use of the word
"bully" as a headline-friendly verb and noun.

Turning off the fire-breathing over the Dalai
Lama would cost nothing and it would telegraph invaluable good faith.
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