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Obama meeting with Dalai Lama complicates U.S. ties with China

The Dalai Lama greets reporters outside of the White House on Thursday after an hour-long meeting with President Obama.
The Dalai Lama greets reporters outside of the White House on Thursday after an hour-long meeting with President Obama. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010

President Obama on Thursday became the fourth consecutive U.S. president to meet the Dalai Lama, a move that at first blush could be seen as part of a new get-tough approach by the administration toward China.

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But U.S. officials and analysts instead say the low-key White House visit -- no joint public appearance or photograph -- was instead the latest episode in the increasingly complicated relations between the United States and China, which have long been marked by mutual distrust but a begrudging agreement on the interdependence between Washington and Beijing.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that during the meeting, "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 China. The Dalai Lama told reporters he was "very happy" with the hour-long session.

Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama marks the second American move in recent weeks to have irritated China. In January, the Defense Department announced it would sell China's nemesis Taiwan $6.4 billion in weapons. But Thursday's meeting and the arms sale don't signify a change in U.S. policy, analysts said.

"There is nothing new here," wrote Elizabeth C. Economy, a China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, for the council's blog. "We are merely witnessing the reality of the U.S.-China relationship, which is marked by almost no trust, a weak foundation of real cooperation, and a lack of shared values and commitment to true compromise."

Simultaneously, for example, the United States and China trade billions of dollars a year in goods while their militaries eye each other nervously.

Seeking China's cooperation on nuclear proliferation, climate change, trade and the global financial crisis, Obama tried not to antagonize Beijing after first taking office, but China's response has been lukewarm. Obama put off meeting with the Dalai Lama and a decision on the arms sales last year as he prepared for a summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

"The thinking all along is that the administration came into office facing real problems and needed to ensure that ties with China were strong," said Douglas H. Paal, a former National Security Council official now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Obama went through that, and after a decent interval, we're returning to our historical interests" in Taiwan and Tibet.

What is new, analysts and U.S. officials say, is that China's reaction to the arms sales and the Dalai Lama meeting have been tougher than in the past -- a sign perhaps of a sense of triumphalism from Beijing as China emerges from the global financial crisis generally unscathed. Beijing threatened to sanction the U.S. companies providing the weapons for Taiwan; it has warned of unspecified consequences for the Dalai Lama meeting.

Still, U.S. officials have been cautioning China to look at the big picture.

"What I'm expecting is that we actually are having a mature relationship," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said several weeks ago when asked about all the potential trouble with China. "That means that it doesn't go off the rails when we have differences of opinion."

And, indeed, despite Beijing's tough talk, there are signs that China and the United States are working to preserve the relationship. China complied with a U.S. request to resume talks with representatives of the Tibetan leader, holding five days of talks last month. The results, according to the leader of the Tibetan delegation, Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari, were inconclusive. The Chinese government also announced a $60 billion development package for Tibet, a tacit acknowledgment that Tibetans have not benefited as much as China's majority Han ethnic group from China's economic rise.

Last month, when Google threatened to pull out of China, the Obama administration announced it would lodge an official protest with Beijing. However, U.S. officials said, no official protest has been lodged, though Clinton did raise the issue with China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, when she met with him in London recently.

Finally, earlier this week, Chinese authorities allowed the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Nimitz to dock in Hong Kong on schedule. The official China Daily quoted a Chinese academic who said that it was a "strong signal" that Beijing was making an effort to mend ties with Washington. China has in the past blocked entry to U.S. vessels during times of tension.


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