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Much to China’s displeasure, U.S. President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama last week. As anticipated, the Beijing government complained bitterly about the meeting and demanded that Washington take steps to put substance behind the U.S. call for a truly constructive and cooperative relationship with China. But the bluster was more muted than many anticipated and reveals that China may have a nuanced understanding of U.S. politics. If that is so, then there is hope that the United States and China can forge a durable relationship that can survive the inevitable challenges and stabilize, rather than upset, relations in Asia.

Then President George H.W. Bush in 1991 became the first sitting U.S. president to meet with the Dalai Lama. Since then, three other presidents have met the spiritual leader on 11 occasions. While U.S. officials recognize the Dalai Lama as the head of a spiritual community and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, China instead sees him as “a splittist” determined to win Tibetan independence. The Beijing government interprets each high-profile meeting with the Dalai Lama as a means of enhancing his legitimacy and makes every effort to deter them. World leaders who have met him have become targets of considerable invective and further retaliation. Several governments have declined meetings rather than court China’s wrath.

Mr. Obama was originally supposed to meet the Dalai Lama last fall, but postponed the meeting so that it would not cast a shadow over, or derail, the president’s trip to China in November. The rescheduling was a show of respect for Chinese sensitivities, but not a show of deference to Chinese interests. When the meeting did take place, it came hot on the heels of the announcement of the U.S. decision to sell arms to Taiwan, a move that was anticipated but still provoked anger from Beijing. Observers worried that China might try to exploit its growing regional influence, and its mounting irritation at what it regards as just grievances, to shift the baselines for engagement with the U.S.

But Beijing’s response has been restrained. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the meeting “grossly violated the norms governing international relations.” U.S. Ambassador to China John Huntsman was called into the Foreign Ministry, where he heard an official complaint. But the visit of a U.S. aircraft carrier to Hong Kong went ahead as planned and there have been few other reprisals. This cooler approach is a welcome change to the heated rhetoric that has been issued in the past.

China must recognize that the U.S. is prepared to engage it as a partner, but that does not mean that Washington will defer to Chinese interests. Mr. Obama followed precedent by keeping his meeting with the Dalai Llama low-key: not in the Oval Office, and without photographers. The statement the U.S. issued after the meeting pointedly noted Mr. Obama’s “strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China,” but also said that both men agreed “on the importance of a positive and cooperative relationship between the U.S. and China.” Beijing could hardly ask for more.

China’s restrained response is a departure from its assertive and muscular foreign policy of late. During negotiations at the Copenhagen climate conference, Beijing played hardball. A deal was struck but China was seen as a reluctant participant. The ongoing dispute over the appropriate value of the renminbi is another source of friction, as are the cyber-attacks that have been launched against U.S. companies and government facilities. There is also a perception that Beijing is not pushing Pyongyang to do more to honor its denuclearization pledges, and that China is reluctant to back United Nations sanctions against North Korea.

From Beijing’s perspective, the readiness of the U.S. to sell arms to Taiwan and its support for the Dalai Lama show a disregard for the nation’s “core interests.” Chinese leaders worry not only that such gestures may provide a boost to independence activists in Taiwan and Tibet, but also that failing to take a hard line in response to the U.S. could expose them to criticism from nationalists.

Each of these issues is part of a larger narrative. Every incident is important not only in its own regard, but for its symbolic significance. The danger is that the Chinese government will feel pressured to take a hard line on every issue, blowing them all out of proportion.

The response to Mr. Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Llama suggests that the Chinese leadership understands the stakes. Chinese officials have long insisted that the U.S. has to avoid deliberate insults and allow China to “keep face.” But Mr. Obama, for his part, cannot be seen as bending to Chinese pressure. If Beijing’s bluster over the meeting was merely aimed at placating a domestic audience, then the two countries should be able to move on and get to work on the real issues that demand cooperation.

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