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Obama-Dalai Lama meet riles China

Publication Date : 23-02-2014


But observers brush off any potential rift in Sino-US ties after Obama hosts meeting


China has accused the United States of meddling in its domestic affairs after President Barack Obama met the Dalai Lama at the White House, saying it is up to Washington to take steps to avoid further damaging ties.

"The US... has grossly interfered in China's internal affairs... China expresses strong indignation and firm opposition to that," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said on its website yesterday.

Observers in Washington are, however, playing down a potential rift in Sino-US ties.

Most describe Chinese objections as pro forma, noting that similar reactions had greeted previous meetings between a US president and the Dalai Lama without further escalation.

Some suggest that US Secretary of State John Kerry might have warned Beijing of the impending meeting when he visited last week.

"There was, perhaps, some pre-communication and discussion beforehand," Liu Feitao, deputy head of the American Studies department of the China Institute of International Studies, told the Christian Science Monitor.

The Washington Post was similarly cavalier, publishing an op-ed online titled "China is angry about Obama meeting the Dalai Lama. But the US shouldn't worry".

Last Friday's meeting was the third time President Obama has met the Dalai Lama, and each incident has triggered criticism from Beijing.

Indeed, there were mixed signals emerging from Beijing. On the one hand, state-run news agency Xinhua reported that the Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui summoned US charge d'affaires Daniel Kritenbrink to protest against the encounter. Yet, at the same time, US Army chief of staff Ray Odierno was received with full military honours at the Chinese Defence Ministry. He and his Chinese counterpart also pledged more dialogue between the two militaries.

And despite the shrill warnings, even Chinese experts do not think the meeting will significantly derail Sino-US ties. Professor Niu Jun of Peking University told The Sunday Times that it was "a small matter".

"Of course there will be a negative impact, but this is not the first time such a meeting has taken place. There have been many such meetings even before President Obama took office. It's not an issue that can be solved overnight."

The White House did keep the meeting low-key. The two met in the Map Room instead of the Oval Office, where Obama hosts heads of state. The Dalai Lama was also kept away from reporters and photographers.

Official Twitter feeds of the White House and the State Department also left out any mention of the Dalai Lama, with only the National Security Council saying that the President was meeting the Dalai Lama in his "capacity as an internationally respected religious and cultural leader".

A statement released by the White House later stressed that the US does not support independence for Tibet. "Dalai Lama stated that he is not seeking independence for Tibet and hopes that dialogue between his representatives and the Chinese government will resume," it said.

Obama did, however, stress strong support for the "preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions, and the protection of human rights for Tibetans".

While unlikely to cause too much of a pushback, the meeting does add another distraction during a time when the US and China are at odds over Beijing's more assertive stance in the East China and South China seas.

Two weeks ago, top US diplomats urged China to "adjust or clarify" its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The US had also previously condemned China's move to establish an air defence identification zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Obama is due to visit four countries in Asia in April, although he is likely to make it to Beijing only at the end of the year for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.


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