In homes and monasteries across Tibet, many will rejoice that President Obama has received the Dalai Lama. In the corridors of the Communist Party’s headquarters at Zhongnanhai the mood will be sombre at best.
China’s leaders will be vexed that another US President has recognised a man they denounce as a splittist seeking independence for Tibet. And they will be anxious lest monks gather to demonstrate their delight — as they did after George Bush presented the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Medal of Honour in 2007.
China’s leaders will certainly respond, especially after Beijing issued repeated warnings to Washington that such a meeting could damage already strained relations. They cannot lose face.
Diplomats already expect President Hu Jintao to spurn a nuclear summit in Washington in April. But the question is whether Mr Hu is willing to jeopardise his state visit planned for November. What he must decide is how tough that response will be.
Every detail of the meeting will be watched. China always knew the encounter would take place, even while it hoped that Mr Obama would become the first president in two decades to shun the monk.
A long shadow has been cast over ties between the world’s largest economy and its third-largest. Tensions have risen over Google threats to pull out if it must continue to submit to China’s censorship, Hillary Clinton’s criticism of China’s internet interference and Obama’s decision to approve $6.4 billion of arms sales to the self-ruled island of Taiwan that China claims as its own. Differences over trade and the value of the Chinese currency may prove to be even more fraught.
What is arguably the world’s most important relationship has caught a chill more severe than at any time since a US spy plane made a forced landing at a Chinese airport after it clipped wings with a Chinese fighter jet in 2001.
With so many disputes coming at once, China will think it can afford to hold fire on the Dalai Lama’s visit to the White House. After all, Mr Obama forewarned Beijing in November. Importantly, the setting of the Map Room signals that this is a private encounter. Beijing will find that gesture reassuring.
After the Dalai Lama’s 2007 meeting with Mr Bush, China exerted prressure behind the scenes on European countries not to meet the monk. It is believed to have rewarded those — like the Vatican — with warmer contacts if they did not.
Gordon Brown chose to meet him at Lambert House rather than in Downing Street. But much more is at stake with Washington.
China knows the Dalai Lama-Obama encounter is unavoidable. It will bluster and bully in its response, but it will stop short of action. It knows there are fiercer fights to come.