Foreign Policy Blogs

Angry Panda: Obama Meets with Dalai Lama, China Throws a Temper Tantrum

Angry Panda

President Obama met informally with exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama at the White House on February 21. The meeting took place in defiance of warnings from Beijing that it would “grossly interfere in the internal affairs of China, seriously violate norms governing international relations and severely impair China-U.S. relations.” As expected, the meeting was quickly followed by angry rebukes from Beijing. Meeting with the Dalai Lama makes China a very unhappy panda (see New York Times, Reuters, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post).

“Strong indignation” was expressed by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, repeating earlier warnings that the meeting “grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs” and “caused grave damage to China-U.S. relations.” The Foreign Ministry further added: “We urge the U.S. side to take China’s concerns seriously, cease to connive and support anti-China separatist forces that seek ‘Tibet independence’, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs and take immediate steps to remove the adverse impact so as to avoid further damage to China-U.S. relations.” The U.S. embassy’s charge d’affaires in Beijing was also summoned by the Foreign Ministry for a face-to-face talk on the potential repercussions of America’s “erroneous act” on U.S-China relations.

“Interfering in China’s internal affairs,” in Beijing-speak, simply means doing or saying anything in relation to China that Beijing doesn’t like. Beijing is apparently unaware that “China’s internal affairs” extend only as far as China’s borders, which don’t include the United States, Washington D.C., the White House, or anyone the President chooses to meet with there.

Outrage over the meeting continued in China’s state-run media. As usual, People’s Daily (in Chinese) accused the United States of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” by hosting the Dalai Lama at the White House — a further charge frequently leveled at Western leaders who do or say anything that displeases the Chinese government (Authors including Joseph Bottum, James Fallows, Tom Lasseter, Victor Mair, and Joel Martinsen have noted the tiresome frequency with which Beijing invokes the “hurt feelings of the Chinese people” against Western leaders). Commentators on China Central Television (CCTV) insisted that “the United States will pay a high price” for hosting the Dalai Lama.

World leaders should indeed “pay a price” for meeting with the Dalai Lama, said a senior Chinese official shortly before Obama’s meeting with the exiled spiritual leader, adding that “China’s power cannot be avoided.” The Foreign Ministry likewise warned that “any country, if it insists on harming China’s interests will also damage their own in the end.” U.S. observers, however, expect little in the way of “serious consequences” from the latest meeting at the White House. Many such meetings have taken place in the past, with little impact on U.S.-China relations. The panda’s growl, it seems, is much worse than its bite. In a White House photo of the latest meeting, President Obama looks supremely unworried by China’s threats or “China’s power”:

President Obama Meets with Dalai Lama.

President Obama Meets with Dalai Lama (White House).

According to Mark Landler at the New York Times, the administration’s defiant and “unruffled” response to Beijing’s threats may in a broader context signal a tougher approach to dealings with China, particularly on the issue of China’s maritime disputes with its Asia-Pacific neighbors. This issue will be at the forefront when Obama visits Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines in April and then travels to Beijing in November for the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

“The White House,” according to an unnamed official cited by Landler, “has concluded that pulling its punches with Beijing does not produce useful results.” Landler also quotes Tibet scholar Robert J. Barnett of Columbia University: “There is a major shift in the international climate…. The Americans have come out of the shadows and said that China’s assertiveness in maritime issues is disruptive. After many years of being cautious, the United States is speaking out.” While the Tibet issue has little directly to do with China’s maritime disputes, according to Barnett, “Being aggressive toward [meeting with] the Dalai Lama only adds to the perception, or even the reality, that China is overreaching itself in its maritime claims.”

If these predictions of a tougher U.S. approach to China hold true, then China will again be a very unhappy panda.



Mark C. Eades

Mark C. Eades is an Asia-based writer, educator, and independent researcher. Located in Shanghai, China from 2009 to 2015, he now splits his time between the United States and various locations in Asia. He has spent a total of seven years in China since his first visit in 1991, and has taught at Fudan University, Shanghai International Studies University, and in the private sector in Shanghai. He is also widely traveled throughout East and Southeast Asia. His educational background includes a Bachelor of Arts in Social Science and a Master of Arts in Humanities from San Francisco State University with extensive coursework in Asia-Pacific studies. His previous publications include articles on China and Sino-US relations in U.S. News & World Report, Asia Times, Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, and Atlantic Community. Twitter: @MC_Eades

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