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Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009

Dalai Lama's very existence frays relations between China, Europe


HONG KONG — At the core of Chairman Mao Zedong's revolutionary theory was the strategy of the united front: Identify the main enemy and then isolate it by forming a united front with as many other classes, groups or elements as possible. Once that is done, the process can be continued with the identification of the next main enemy. China's policy toward Europe seems to reflect that strategy.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy stuck his finger in Beijing's eye by announcing that he would meet with the Dalai Lama the same week that the European Union was meant to hold a summit meeting with China last December. An infuriated Beijing canceled the summit conference. Now, Beijing is seeking to isolate France by wooing other key EU members.

Premier Wen Jiabao recently concluded a trip to Europe, during which he went to Switzerland to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos and then visited Germany, Belgium, Spain and Britain. Wen pointed out that he had circumnavigated France.

"I looked at a map of Europe on the plane," he said. "My trip goes around France." He urged France to "mend and improve ties" with China, saying the cause of the problem in the bilateral relationship "doesn't lie with China."

It was particularly galling for China that when Sarkozy announced his meeting with the Dalai Lama, France held the rotating presidency of the EU. Now, it is the Czech Republic's turn to be president for six months, yet the Dalai Lama had also been welcomed to Prague by Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek before the Tibetan spiritual leader went on to Warsaw for the meeting with Sarkozy.

Still, when Premier Wen was in Brussels at the beginning of his European tour, he met with Topolanek and both men pledged to work for closer relations between China and the EU. China refuses to accept the willingness of European leaders to meet with the Dalai Lama.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who held talks with Wen in Berlin, was on the receiving end of Chinese ire after meeting with the Dalai Lama in September 2007. Still, she urged China to resume its dialogue with the Tibetan spiritual leader when she saw Wen in January.

At the root of the problem is China's position that the Tibetan issue is part of its core national interest and meetings by European leaders with the Dalai Lama constitute interference in China's internal affairs. European countries see Tibet as a human rights issue and urge the Chinese government to continue talks with the Dalai Lama's representatives.

Last year, following the rioting in Lhasa, China did resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama, but the meetings broke off amid acrimony in November.

Despite the Dalai Lama's insistence that all he wants is genuine autonomy for Tibet, Beijing insists that he is secretly working for Tibetan independence and accuses him of having tried to undermine the Beijing Olympics.

The European Parliament also angered China last October by giving the 2008 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to an imprisoned dissident, Hu Jia.

Current attempts by China to stop European leaders from meeting with the Dalai Lama are reminiscent of its ultimately successful campaign in the 1980s and 1990s to halt the sale of arms to Taiwan by European countries. In 1981, China downgraded ties with the Netherlands when the Dutch agreed to sell two submarines to Taiwan. Normal ties were not restored until 1984, when Holland agreed to halt arms sales to Taiwan.

In the early 1990s, France sold warships and fighter jets to Taiwan. In retaliation, Beijing canceled large-scale projects with France, including the Guangzhou subway project, the second phase of the Daya Bay nuclear power plant and the purchase of French wheat.

In 1993, a new French government agreed there would be no further arms sales to Taiwan. Germany also agreed to end arms sales. By 1998, all European arms sales to Taiwan had stopped.

Beijing would like to repeat this success in its campaign to get European leaders not to meet with the Dalai Lama. While this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future, China appears to be pinning its hopes on one thing that European leaders cannot change: the mortality of the 73-year-old Tibetan leader.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator (Frank.ching@gmail.com).


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