Focus Turns to US-China Ties

The Dalai Lama's White House visit stirs debate on bilateral relations between the world's two biggest economies.
Parameswaran Ponnudurai
tibet-dalai-dc-305.gif The Dalai Lama performs a ritual at the Anacostia River in Washington, July 16, 2011.

Will U.S.–China relations suffer following President Barack Obama's meeting on Saturday with the Dalai Lama?

Beijing says ties between the world's two biggest economies were "damaged" when Obama for the second time welcomed the spiritual leader of Tibet to the White House.

In what appeared to be strongly worded statements, the Chinese foreign ministry said that the White House, by hosting the meeting between the two Nobel laureates, was waging a high stakes gamble with U.S.–China ties.

"Such an act has grossly interfered in China's internal affairs, hurt the feelings of Chinese people, and damaged the Sino-American relations," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a written statement, after the talks.

But American experts see little or no damage from the talks.

Although the Chinese regard the Dalai Lama as a splittist wanting to take Tibet away from China, all sitting U.S. Presidents since George H. W. Bush in 1991 have met him—at least a dozen times—when he came to Washington.

"I doubt there will be any real, consequential fallout" from the latest meeting, Randy Schriver, a former senior State Department official in charge of East Asian relations, told RFA.

"The Chinese very much need stable relations with the U.S. at this juncture," said Randy, now chief executive of the Washington-based Project 2049 Institute, an Asia-Pacific think tank.

Clinton, Biden visit

The Obama–Dalai Lama meeting came nine days before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's trip to the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen for talks with State Councilor Dai Bingguo, Beijing's top foreign policy official, on July 25.

"It's difficult to say at the moment whether this meeting will be affected," said Jin Canrong, an international affairs expert at China's Renmin University, according to the Associated Press.

"But this meeting is quite important and whether it takes place or is canceled will give us an indication of what the follow-up impact will be."

U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden is also scheduled to visit China this summer, followed by a trip to Washington by his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.

Jin felt that after the Obama–Dalai Lama meeting, "Sino–U.S. relations will be rather cold over the next few months."

"It may lead to the suspension of high-level official exchanges and therefore impact on the strategic mutual trust and cooperation between China and the U.S. in some fields, including military ties."

No direct threat

Some groups, however, played down the Chinese government reaction to the Dalai Lama's White House visit.

For one thing, the Chinese statements did not directly threaten retaliation.

The other is that they were mostly in line with past denunciations of U.S. dealings with the Dalai Lama.

Some of the words were recycled from previous statements—such as those asking the U.S. to stop "interfering in China's internal affairs," demanding the U.S. side to "wipe out the baneful impact" of the meeting, and saying that the talks have "damaged" Sino-American relations.

China's summoning of the top envoy at the U.S. embassy in Beijing to the foreign ministry over the Dalai Lama–Obama meeting was also not unprecedented.

The Obama administration tried to contain any damage from the meeting by announcing it less than 24 hours before the event and by pointing out that the talks will be held in the White House residence's Map Room—not the Oval Office where the president welcomes heads of state.

In addition, no media coverage was allowed and only a single official photograph of the two leaders sitting down was released after the 45-minute talks.

In an apparent message to Beijing, the White House also emphasized in its statement after the meeting that both the United States and the Dalai Lama accept Tibet to be a part of China.

It also underlined the Dalai Lama’s "commitment to nonviolence and dialogue with China and his pursuit of the 'Middle Way' approach."

Still, the Chinese official media kept up the pressure.

The People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, called on U.S. politicians to "remove their tinted spectacles."

It said the United States was intentionally "ignoring the facts" about the huge progress Tibet has made under party rule.

"The statements of some in the United States show ignorance and hypocrisy, exposing the deep enmity some harbor towards China's development and progress," it said in a commentary.

Some users of China's popular Weibo microblogging site also vented their anger over the meeting.

"We should tell the U.S. that if their president continues in this vein, the Chinese government will consider meeting with members of Al-Qaeda (terror group)," wrote a user under "Waiting alone at home."

Tibet visit

A day after the White House talks, China Central Television showed Chinese Vice-President Xi, who is tipped to succeed President Hu Jintao next year, flying into Lhasa, the capital of China's Tibet Autonomous Region, on Sunday.

He is leading a nearly 60-member high level delegation for festivities marking the Himalayan territory's 60th anniversary of Chinese communist rule since 1951. The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising to set up his government-in-exile in India.

Xi's visit comes as Beijing cracks down hard on peaceful anti-China protests in Tibet and in Tibetan-majority areas, which was believed to be a key topic of discussions between the Dalai Lama and Obama.

Tibet under Chinese rule has been rated among 10 of the world's most repressive societies in a survey published last month by U.S.-based rights group Freedom House.

But major Chinese papers on Sunday prominently carried a long article by the state-run news agency Xinhua that praised the six-decade communist rule over Tibet.

Under the headline "Deep care and a great leap forward," the article said that Tibetans' living standards had greatly improved and the government had invested heavily in Tibet's infrastructure, with this year's investment expected to reach 26 billion yuan (U.S. $4 billion), a new high.

The stark differences over Tibet will continue to dog ties between the U.S. and China but, analysts say, the two powers  have powerful reasons to cooperate with each other for mutual benefit.

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