Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, North America, Religion

US-CHINA: Dalai Lama Visit Adds to List of Grievances

Eli Clifton and Charles Fromm

WASHINGTON, Feb 18 2010 (IPS) - U.S. President Barack Obama met with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, Thursday in the White House, raising objections from China and adding to existing U.S.-China tensions over Taiwan arms sales, internet censorship and hacking, tariffs on Chinese tyres and calls for Beijing to readjust its currency.

The low-profile meeting, which noticeably took place in the White House map room instead of the Oval Office, was described by the Dalai Lama as having included discussions on democracy, freedom and human rights.

“The President stated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China,” said a statement released by the White House. In a concession to Beijing, the White House postponed the meeting from last year so as not to hurt relations before Obama’s November trip to China, but state-run media outlets in China and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs have expressed displeasure with the meeting.

“We urge the U.S. to fully recognise the high sensitivity of Tibet-related issues, strictly abide by its commitment of recognising Tibet as part of China and opposing ‘Tibet independence’, cancel immediately the wrong decision of arranging a meeting between President Obama and Dalai, not to provide Dalai any arena or convenience to engage in anti-China splitist activities, not to undermine the stability of Tibet and interfere in China’s internal affairs so as to protect China-U.S. relations from being further undermined,” said a statement posted on Chinese Foreign Ministry website on Feb. 10.

While the Chinese have expressed opposition to the meeting, the meeting in the map room was nowhere near as high-profile – and diplomatically problematic – as the 2007 decision by U.S. President George W. Bush’s to present the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Medal of Honour.

The Chinese responded by pressuring foreign governments not to host visits from the Dalai Lama, which led to anti-Beijing protests in ethnically Tibetan parts of China and a violent crackdown on protesters by authorities in Tibet. China went on to list Tibet as one of its “core interests,” a warning to the U.S. and other countries not to tamper in issues related to Tibetan sovereignty.

“Generally, and despite attempts at nuance in timing and location of such meetings by White Houses past and present, Chinese public reactions rarely seem to moderate in response,” said Charles Freeman, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in an interview on the CSIS website.

Tensions over the Dalai Lama’s visit are only the latest war of words to erupt between Washington and Beijing in recent months as the two countries deal with ongoing political, military and economic tensions.

In September, Obama authorised a 35-percent emergency tariff on Chinese tyre imports in order to curb a “surge” of Chinese tyres which, according to U.S. trade unions, have cost 7,000 U.S. factory workers their jobs.

Beijing responded quickly to condemn the U.S. tariffs and threatened to levy its own tariffs against U.S. products.

In January, Google announced that email accounts owned by diplomats, human rights activists and journalists had been infiltrated by Chinese hackers, leading Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to deliver a speech outlining the administration’s position on intellectual property theft, cyber security and Chinese internet censorship.

China responded by accusing the U.S. of “information imperialism” and denied charges that the government participated in cyber attacks.

Earlier this month, the Beijing-Washington relationship hit another rough patch when China threatened to impose sanctions on U.S. companies participating in an upcoming 6.4-billion-dollar arms deal with Taiwan.

As the global economic crisis stressed both China and the U.S. economies, China has sought to shift the investments from its balance of payments surplus away from U.S. dollars and into equities and commodities while Obama has been under pressure to address the growing trade deficit with China.

With the Dalai Lama’s visit comes the latest round of harsh words between Washington and Beijing, leaving analysts to try and pick apart whether the growing political, economic and military tensions are part of a larger trend or the symptom of domestic pressures -most likely stemming from the global financial crisis – on both Chinese and U.S. leadership.

China experts are warning that Chinese President Hu Jintao may retaliate for Thursday’s meeting by cancelling his scheduled trip to Washington in April to attend the Nuclear Security Summit.

Indeed the tensions between China and the U.S. have growing global importance as cooperation between the two countries is crucial on a number of multilateral issues, including combating climate change, engineering a recovery from the global financial crisis, and addressing the nuclear programmes of North Korea and Iran – although Tehran denies that it is pursuing military capabilities.

Managing this increasingly important and complicated relationship will require changes from both Beijing and Washington in how they conduct diplomacy in the bilateral relationship.

“For Chinese leaders, that will mean drawing a fine line between rhetoric and reality, limiting protests to gestures for their domestic audience even as they work with the United States on a number of fronts,” wrote Douglas H. Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in the South China Morning Post.

“For its part, the United States must maintain its principled commitment to human rights but also demonstrate some restraint on issues China considers ‘core interests’,” he said.

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