China’s first order of business this morning was to issue a protest against President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, demanding Washington take steps to improve ties strained by the encounter.
How Beijing calibrated that response has been widely anticipated as a signal of whether its anger at Washington’s show of respect to a man China accuses of fomenting unrest in Tibet will further damage already strained relations.
The language used by Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu was relatively restrained, stopping short of warning of further harm to relations and reflecting Beijing’s desire to limit the impact while such serious issues as U.S. arms sales to Taiwan remain on the table.
Mr Ma said China expressed “strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition” to the meeting. He said: “The Chinese side demands that the U.S. side seriously consider China’s stance, immediately adopt measures to wipe out the baneful impact and stop conniving and supporting anti-China separatist forces that seek Tibet independence.”
To underscore Beijing’s displeasure, Deputy Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai summoned U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman and “lodged solemn representations”.
However, China avoided reference to earlier statements in which it said such a meeting would damage relations. Its response will have been decided to some extent by President Obama’s low-key welcome to the Tibetan god-king, who has lived in exile in India since an abortive uprising against Beijing in 1951 and who campaigns for greater autonomy for his people.
China has branded the Nobel peace prize winner as a “splittist” seeking to remove Tibet from Chinese rule and objects strongly to contacts between him and international leaders.
Obama told the Dalai Lama that he backed the preservation of Tibet’s culture and supported human rights for its people. He also encouraged talks between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government.
However, the meeting was low-key – in consideration of China’s objections. It took place in the White House’s Map Room, a venue for private talks, and Obama made no public comments or allowed any welcome fanfare. A single photo was issued of the two leaders sitting down over tea.
That compared with the Dalai Lama’s last reception by a U.S. president in 2007, when George W. Bush presented him with the Congressional Medal of Honour. Such meetings have become standard fare since 1991, but the choreography is always delicate and carefully planned because of China’s sensitivities.
After the meeting, the Dalai Lama chided Beijing for taking a “childish” and “limited” approach to Tibet’s quest for Tibetan autonomy. His envoy, Lodi Gyari, who heads sporadic talks with Beijing, said the session would offer encouragement to Tibetans who feel marginalised in China.