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Obama braces for China's Tibet 'offensive'

March 16, 2009

March 15, 2009

WASHINGTON (AFP) ‘ Barack Obama has started his presidency with aims to
build a broader relationship with China but he is already getting a
taste of battles to come on one deeply divisive issue -- Tibet.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visited Washington last week and
spoke of a "historic opportunity" for the Pacific powers to build
lasting cooperation under Obama, even after a showdown between their
navies in the South China Sea.

But Yang vowed no compromise on Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and
Taiwan -- and did not mince words when he demanded his hosts stop
"meddling" in Beijing's affairs over human rights.

While Taiwan tensions have been easing, China poured troops into Tibet
to prevent protests on the March 10 anniversary of a failed uprising
that forced the region's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to flee to India.

Prominent Tibet expert Warren Smith, addressing a US Congress panel on
Friday, said China has launched a new offensive both in the Himalayan
territory and on the diplomatic front.

He cited the global response to China's crackdown on protests in Tibet a
year ago in which rights groups say hundreds of Tibetans were killed or
remain missing.

"Tibetans and their Western supporters may have thought that the 2008
uprising put them on the offensive," Smith said.

But with no Western leaders following through on threats to boycott the
Beijing Olympics, China believed it won the propaganda battle and
hardened its position, he said.

China last year canceled a major economic summit with European leaders
after French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with the Dalai Lama.

"China's cancelation of the European meeting may in the future be seen
to have been the first move in its new offensive on Tibet," Smith added.

Obama said he told Yang that human rights were an "essential aspect" of
US foreign policy and voiced hope for a resumption of talks between
China and the Dalai Lama's representatives.

The Dalai Lama, who enjoys a large following in the United States, is
expected to visit Washington this year. Every US president has met the
Nobel Peace Prize winner since George H.W. Bush in 1991.

Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, had no doubt that Obama would also meet the
Tibetan spiritual leader, saying that Beijing's pressure on European
leaders was unlikely to work here.

"The president is not going to go out of his way to poke his finger in
China's eye and be very provocative but there is no doubt that we (the
US) will continue to see the Dalai Lama as an important spiritual
figure," she said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had caused a storm on a visit to
China last month when she said that human rights would not impede
cooperation between the countries on the global economic crisis, climate
change and other issues.

"I believe that position erred a little bit too much in the direction of
downplaying the importance of human rights and I think the
administration realized that and so when Yang was here they emphasized
the other direction," Glaser said.

Human rights have been a constant friction in US relations with China.

However, Chinese leaders gave a largely positive assessment to former
president George W. Bush who -- despite his criticism of Beijing's
rights record -- ramped up cooperation with Beijing, particularly on the

Nina Hachigian, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American
Progress, said that the Obama administration had a chance to broaden the

She noted that Clinton has moved quickly to start cooperation on climate
change between the world's two biggest carbon-emitting nations.

"Under the Bush administration, the relationship was literally driven by
the Treasury Department," she said. "It's fair to say that with some
exceptions that our relationship was very much driven by economic

"Now we are seeing more of a holistic approach," she said.
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