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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."

German leaders zigzag in relations to Dalai Lama

February 19, 2010

Author: Michael Lawton
Editor: Chuck Penfold
Deutsche Welle (Germany)
February 18, 2010

As the Dalai Lama meets with President Barack
Obama, German leaders may be thinking back to
their own past controversies with China over Tibet's spiritual leader.

Whenever the Dalai Lama goes anywhere, the Chinese get annoyed.

The spiritual leader of the Tibetan people is
seen by the Chinese as a threat to their
country's unity, and they see every meeting with
him as an expression of support for the break-up
of their country.  Now it's the United States and
President Barack Obama that are the object of
Chinese displeasure. But the Germans have also
had their fair share of Dalai Lama troubles in the past.

Back in 1996, the then-German foreign minister,
Klaus Kinkel, found his invitation to China
withdrawn after the German parliament voted to
condemn Chinese repression in Tibet.

Kinkel had himself met the Dalai Lama the year
before, but, in a gesture which was highly
criticized at the time, he refused to accept the
white shawl which the Dalai Lama always hands
out. Adrienne Woltersdorf, head of Deutsche
Welle's Chinese service, said she thought the
gesture reflected the problems Germany has with
the Dalai Lama quite accurately.

Zigzag course

"It's a kind of zigzag course," she said. "German
politicians have always debated very intensely
how to meet the Dalai Lama, whether to meet, on
what level and even in which building. It's a
difficult issue, especially because Germany is a
very big export nation with strong economic ties to China."

Fischer and Dalai LamaBildunterschrift:
Großansicht des Bildes mit der
Bildunterschrift:  Joschka Fischer met the Dalai Lama several times

Kinkel's successor as foreign minister, Joschka
Fischer, met the Dalai Lama several times - in
the foreign ministry building, and he accepted
the scarf. But at the same time, his boss,
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, made a point of not
having anything to do with the Tibetan issue.
Schroeder was known for his prioritizing of
economic issues, so it came as no surprise that
he didn't want to risk good business on a
powerless Tibetan leader with no money to spend on German engineering products.

"[Schroeder's] China policy focused on the shared
values in the Chinese-German relations instead of
emphasizing the divisive issues," said
Woltersdorf, "so he tried to drop human rights
down [the agenda], and deal with more
constructive and economic-oriented topics."

The roles were reversed when, in 2007, Chancellor
Angela Merkel met the Dalai Lama officially in
the Chancellery. Then it was the foreign
minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who implied
that he thought the meeting was just
grandstanding. Human rights policy is not
something for the shop window, he said. But Merkel remained firm.

Strong relations with China in spite of the Dalai Lama

Steinmeier and Jang JiechiBildunterschrift:
Großansicht des Bildes mit der
Bildunterschrift:  Steinmeier and his Chinese
counterpart Yang Jiechi declare the spat over

"I have always maintained that the relationship
between Germany and China is far too important
that a meeting with the Dalai Lama should call
into question what we have built up together,"
she said after the dust had settled a bit.

Woltersdorf said she was right. "It's a
diplomatic game," she said, adding that she
expected the same procedure with regard to the
Dalai Lama's visit to the US - a couple of months
of bad temper, followed by a return to normal relations.

But she did have a warning. "The only difference
now is China's new strength," she said. "We can't
judge how far China is prepared to go in
punishing foreign governments for meeting with the Dalai Lama."

The US and Barack Obama may be taking a bit more
of a risk than the Germans have taken in the
past. Who needs whom more nowadays? The German
experience - before the economic crisis which
changed the balance of power in the world -
suggests that both sides still need each other
enough to mean that any damage is likely to be limited.
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