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Analysts: US President's Meeting With Dalai Lama a Step Forward


President Barack Obama meets with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the Map Room of the White House, 18 Feb 2010

President Barack Obama meets with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the Map Room of the White House, 18 Feb 2010

The United States and China have a new reason for tension: President Barack Obama's recent meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. The meeting came despite strong efforts by China to keep it from happening. Despite that, analysts say Washington's decision to take a stand on human rights regardless of what China may say or do in response will ultimately move the U.S. - China relationship forward.

Chinese officials typically characterize the Dalai Lama as a "wolf in monk's robes," a Tibetan separatist. But for many others, he is a champion of peace. On Thursday, the spiritual leader met at the White House with U.S. President Barack Obama and thanked him for his support of the Tibetan cause.

"Even before he was president, during the election, he telephoned me and even after he became president, he was always showing his genuine concern, and including his visit to Beijing you see, he expressed his concern about Tibet and other global issues so I expressed my thanks to him," said the Dalai Lama.

Supporters who had gathered outside his hotel in Washington sang songs and thanked the Obama administration for allowing the meeting to take place. Some wiped back tears. Last October, Mr. Obama chose not to meet with the Dalai Lama before visiting China in an effort to please Beijing.

That decision raised questions about Mr. Obama's support for human rights in China, and was in contrast to what his predecessors had done. When President George W. Bush's was in office, he presented the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Sophie Richardson, the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, says Mr. Obama's administration made the mistake of assuming one needs to build up goodwill with China.

Richardson says that in dealing with Beijing, the U.S. government should be clear and consistent from the start on human rights. "I think the president's decision not to meet the Dalai Lama until after he had visited Beijing, certainly gave the impression that he was going to go soft on human rights issues," said Richardson.

Mr. Obama did not speak publicly about the meeting, but the White House released a photo of the two Nobel Peace Prize recipients together. Mr. Obama also said in a statement that he supports Tibet's unique religious, cultural identity and urged China and Tibetans to resolve their differences through dialogue.

Increased tensions

The meeting comes at a time of increased tensions between the U.S. and China over allegations of Chinese currency manipulation, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and restrictions on the Internet in China.

On Friday Beijing issued a statement that said the meeting had "seriously harmed" U.S.-Sino relations and summoned the American ambassador for a meeting.

Robbie Barnett, a professor of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University, says the meeting was a huge step because China has massively stepped up its efforts to keep the Dalai Lama from traveling to other countries and meeting with other world leaders ever since he met with President George W. Bush in 2007.

"America has now put its foot down and said this kind of diplomacy, sort of a threatening diplomacy that China has used on the Dalai Lama question, that's not going to work anymore," said Barnett.

Although there is some concern about what China may do in response, Human Rights Watch's Sophie Richardson says she doubts Beijing will take a stronger stand. "If the Chinese government is going to react in some more consequential way all it is going to do is prolong the public discussion about the Dalai Lama, about Tibet, about human rights issues. That's not in their interest," she said.

Another China expert - Barry Sautman at Hong Kong's University of Science and Technology - discounts concerns that China might cancel a possible visit to Washington by President Hu Jintao. "I'm inclined to believe that it won't be because there's still a couple of months between now and April, so things generally cool off after a couple of months," he said.

Most analysts believe that with pressing issues such as the global financial crisis, trade and climate change, Beijing and Washington will find a way to keep the relationship moving forward.

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