HONG KONG — The decision by China to cancel, or at least postpone, a summit meeting with the European Union scheduled this week in Lyon, France, is unprecedented and shows the extent of its unhappiness with the Europeans in general and with Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, in particular.

The Chinese move came after France announced that Sarkozy would meet with the Dalai Lama in Poland on Saturday, when both men will take part in a ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of the award of the Nobel Prize to former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa.

The Tibetan spiritual leader is also scheduled to visit the Czech Republic and Belgium, to meet leaders in those European countries and to address the European Parliament.

All this was clearly too much for China to take. After negotiations failed to sway the Europeans, Beijing called off the summit meeting. Subsequently, in response to questions about when and under what conditions a summit could be held, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said: “The convening of the 11th China-EU Summit depends on whether France, which holds the rotating EU presidency, will take proper measures to create the necessary and good conditions and atmosphere for the summit.”

Sarkozy has talked about meeting the Dalai Lama for months. He also spoke of boycotting the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics unless China resumed its dialogue with the Dalai Lama. In the end, China resumed the dialogue but no progress was made. Sarkozy attended the Olympics and now will meet with the Dalai Lama.

France’s term as EU president ends this month and the Czech Republic will take over. But support for Tibetan independence is high among Czechs and the situation vis-a-vis China may not necessarily improve.

Other European leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have also met the Dalai Lama the past year. China’s position, as articulated by its spokesmen, is one of total opposition to all contact between the Dalai Lama and “foreign governments and leaders in whatever form.”

However, Beijing reacts especially strongly if the meetings take place in an official setting, or if it is not clearly stated that the Tibetan leader is being received in his religious capacity.

U.S. President George W. Bush has also upset China by meeting the Dalai Lama, but the meetings have been relatively low key. Besides, China’s main problem with the United States is Taiwan.

China resolved the Taiwan issue with Europe over a decade ago. By taking on European countries that sold weapons to Taiwan one by one, Beijing successfully got all of them to agree not to make arms sales through a combination of economic carrots and diplomatic sticks.

Now, there is a hint that China may use the same weapons to deal with the Dalai Lama issue. At a press conference, Qin was asked why, given substantial French investments in China, Beijing was treating France in such a way. The Chinese spokesman turned the question around and asked why France, given its significant investments, was behaving in such a manner. The implied threat was clear.

Neither side wants the situation to spin out of control. Both say they want to develop a comprehensive strategic partnership. That being the case, it should be possible for the two sides to reach a compromise.

China’s position on the Dalai Lama is unlikely to change; nor is that of the Europeans. However, if European leaders meet the Dalai Lama in unofficial settings and clearly as a religious rather than political leader, it may be possible to manage the relationship with China.

After all, the European countries recognize Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and do not have relations with the Tibetan government-in-exile in India. Hence, logically, any meeting with the Dalai Lama can only be in his religious capacity. The Dalai Lama himself has repeatedly said he does not want to play any political role. If Europeans take his statements at face value, it may be possible to arrange such occasional meetings.

China, of course, wants an end to all meetings with the Dalai Lama, but it is unlikely that this will happen. Beijing’s policy now appears to be one of biding its time and waiting for nature to take its course with the 73-year-old Tibetan leader. From that standpoint, time is on China’s side, so there seems no reason to push relations with European countries to the breaking point, as long as Europe itself assumes a moderate stance.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. E-mail: Frank.ching@gmail.com

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