Obama held a low-key meeting in the White House on Thursday with the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled leader, in the face of wider tensions with Beijing over U.S. weapons sales Taiwan, China’s currency policies, trade disputes and Internet censorship.
Beijing responded with predictable vehemence.
“The U.S. act amounted to serious interference in Chinese domestic affairs, and has seriously hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and seriously damaged China-U.S. relations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement on the ministry website (www.mfa.gov.cn).
The United States should “immediately take effective steps to eradicate the malign effects” of the meeting, said Ma.
“Use concrete actions to promote the healthy and stable development of Sino-U.S. relations,” he said.
Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankui “lodged solemn representations” with U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, the official Xinhua news agency said.
Chinese Communist troops marched into Tibet in 1950. The Dalai Lama fled in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, and has since campaigned for self-rule from exile.
Beijing accuses the Dala Lama of fomenting unrest and seeking to split Tibet from China. The Dalai Lama says he is merely seeking greater autonomy.
Beijing did not threaten retaliation, and its angry words echoed many past statements about the Dalai Lama meetings with foreign political leaders.
But the dispute could complicate Obama’s efforts to secure China’s help on key issues such as imposing tougher sanctions on Iran and forging a new global accord on climate change.
“This certainly isn’t the first meeting between a U.S. president and the Dalai Lama, and so both sides knew what was coming and China’s response reflected that,” said Jin Canrong, an expert on China-U.S. ties at Renmin University in Beijing.
“But I think it’s too early to say tensions have passed. There’s still the U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and there are also disputes over trade and the currency that could escalate.”
Washington has complained that China has skewed trade flows in its favour by holding down the value of its yuan currency. China regards self-ruled Taiwan as a breakaway province.
In the predominantly Tibetan region of Tongren in northwest China’s Qinghai province, monks expressed their support for the Obama meeting, saying they celebrated the event with a large firework display.
“This is great news for the Tibetans,” said Jokhar, a local monk. “We don’t care that it makes the government angry. It makes us very happy that Obama met him.”
Tsering, a Tibetan celebrating the lunar new year on Thursday, smiled when he heard the meeting was about to take place.
Obama encouraged China and the Dalai Lama’s envoys to keep up efforts to resolve their differences through negotiations, despite recent talks having yielded little progress.
The White House said Obama and the Dalai Lama also “agreed on the importance of a positive and cooperative relationship between the United States and China.”
“We are fully committed to remain in the People’s Republic of China,” the Dalai Lama told reporters. But he reiterated his longstanding call for “meaningful autonomy.”
By going ahead with the meeting over Chinese objections, Obama may have wanted to show his resolve against Beijing after facing criticism at home for being too soft with China’s leaders on his trip there in November.
On the eve of the Dalai Lama’s visit, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs insisted the United States and China — the world’s largest and third-biggest economies — have a “mature relationship” capable of withstanding disagreements. Reuters