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Chinese fume over Obama-Dalai Lama meeting. Will there be blowback?

President Obama is holding his third meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader. China views such meetings as interference in its affairs.

BEIJING  —   China reacted angrily to news of President Obama‘s meeting today with the Dalai Lama, but stopped short of threatening any retaliation. Beyond the denunciations, Washington likely has little to fear, unlike smaller trading partners that have bent to Beijing‘s will and turned away the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

The planned meeting would “severely impair China-US relations” and “grossly interfere in the internal affairs of China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

Her statement echoed Beijing’s criticism of Mr. Obama’s two previous meetings with the Dalai Lama in 2010 and 2011. On neither occasion did the Chinese government follow up its rhetoric with hostile actions.

China sees the Dalai Lama as a separatist, and accuses foreign leaders who receive him of undermining Chinese sovereignty over Tibet. The Dalai Lama insists he wants only autonomy, not independence, for Tibet.

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Washington supports that policy and has played down the political significance of Friday’s meeting, to be held not in the Oval Office but in the less formal setting of the Map Room. “The president will meet with the Dalai Lama in his capacity as an internationally respected religious and cultural leader,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement. 

Observers here suspect that China’s calls for the meeting to be canceled are merely pro forma, and that US Secretary of State John Kerry privately gave Chinese leaders advance warning when he was in Beijing last week.

“There was, perhaps, some pre-communication and discussion beforehand,” suggests Liu Feitao, deputy head of the American Studies department of the China Institute of International Studies, a think tank linked to the Foreign Ministry.

“If so, maybe this issue can be managed,” he adds.

“Pay a price”

Beijing often issues threats against foreign leaders who might be thinking of meeting the Dalai Lama, in China’s continuing campaign to isolate and weaken him diplomatically. One senior official warned earlier this week that any leader who hosts the Dalai Lama should “pay a price.”

Ms. Hua, the foreign ministry spokeswoman, threatened on Friday that “any country bent on impairing China’s interests will find its own interests are hurt in the end.”

Such language, though, is little more than “fire breathing” argues Robbie Barnett, an expert on Tibet who teaches at Columbia University in New York. In reality, he says, Beijing very rarely exacts a real price.

Britain is the most recent victim of Chinese wrath, following a private meeting in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London between the Dalai Lama and Prime Minister David Cameron in May 2012.

China suspended all ministerial contacts for 18 months, and rebuffed two attempts by Mr. Cameron to visit Beijing. But the diplomatic chill had no negative effect on Britain’s economic ties with China: UK-China trade hit a record high in 2013.

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China’s ambassador to London, Liu Xiaoming, told a business meeting in London last month that Chinese investment in Britain over the past two years had reached $13 billion, more than in the previous three decades. 

In 2007, Germany was in the diplomatic dog house after Chancellor Angela Merkel received the Dalai Lama in her office, but relations returned to normal in less than a year. And during that year, German exports to China increased by 19.7 percent, according to EU figures.

Last September, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite welcomed the Dalai Lama to Vilnius in a private meeting; the only retribution the small Baltic state has suffered so far has been the cancellation of a planned visit in October by a Chinese deputy Minister of Trade.

Beijing-approved statements

China’s threats, however, sometimes work. In recent years France, Britain and Denmark have all issued statements, using Beijing-approved language, acknowledging Beijing’s sovereignty over Tibet and pledging to respect Chinese interests.

And countries heavily dependent on Chinese trade and investment are easily swayed. South Africa, with which Beijing enjoys friendly relations, has twice refused a visa to the Dalai Lama; he was unable to attend Bishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th  birthday party and Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Both are fellow Nobel Peace Prize winners. 

By meeting the Dalai Lama in the White House Map Room, Obama’s session will be technically unofficial, as were the previous two encounters. George W. Bush is the only US president to have received the Dalai Lama officially, in 2007, when the Tibetan leader was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor.

“It will be a low-profile meeting,” says Prof. Liu. “The US side surely understands China’s position … and neither side wants this to get out of control.”

“The Chinese will be perfectly happy if the meeting is held in a private room,” adds Dr. Barnett, rather than the Oval Office as happened in 2007. “Things are back on-script.”