Washington’s double whammy to Beijing

By Mayank Chhaya

Washington, (IANS) Either by default or by design Washington is delivering a double whammy to Beijing this week. On Tuesday, President George W. Bush held a private meeting with the Dalai Lama, while on Wednesday the Tibetan leader will be conferred the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

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The timing of these two events could not have been more discommoding for the Sino-American relations. For President Bush to choose to meet the Dalai Lama and the US Congress to honor him at the same time the Communist Party is holding its 17th National Congress in Beijing has not been lost on experts on both sides.

While the timing may have been perfectly fortuitous, what is obviously not so is Bush’s decision to hold a private meeting with the Tibetan leader. So far all such meetings between the US president and the Dalai Lama have been what is delicately called “drop-ins”, a sort of by the way encounter when the former meets the latter seemingly unplanned. The idea is to suggest that the Dalai Lama just happened to be in the White House complex and the president chose to see him out of courtesy and as a spiritual leader.

Although Beijing does not take kindly to such “drop-ins”, either in the carefully orchestrated world of international diplomacy such meetings are not paid serious attention. However, this time around Bush has expressly chosen to meet the Dalai Lama. Not just that, he will attend the formal ceremony to award the Dalai Lama the Congressional Gold Medal at Capitol Hill Together these actions send out a strong signal, the strongest till date on the question Tibet.

Lody Gyari, the Dalai Lama’s special envoy to Washington, saw the meeting as sending out a strong message to the international community that Tibet was not a forgotten issue.

The Tuesday meeting at Bush’s residence meeting lasted 30 minutes. However, in a measure of the extraordinary balancing act that the administration has had to perform in order not to offend the Chinese any more than they already have the White House did not even release any photographs. “We in no way want to stir the pot and make China feel that we are poking a stick in their eye. And this may be one thing that we can do,” Dana Perino, the White House press secretary was quoted as saying.

“We understand that there are very strong feelings that the Chinese have, and that they’ve reacted negatively to the fact the president will be going to this event tomorrow. But the president was clear that he would attend the event, as he had before. And we made a decision not to release a photograph today, but you are — it’s not that you’re not going to get a picture of the president and the Dalai Lama, because you’ll see them together tomorrow at the Capitol,” she said.

Asked how the meeting between the two leaders might be perceived and indeed if it would be seen as sending a signal to the world community, Perino said, “I think that what the president would believe is that people are going to look at this meeting in several different ways, and it’s almost taking on a life of its own. The president has met with the Dalai Lama before. He is a great spiritual leader. The President wants to meet with him. The President believes that people all over the world should be able to express their religion and practice their religion in freedom. And that’s why the president wants to meet with him. He believes he should be honored as a great spiritual leader.”

What is particularly striking is that the Bush administration is choosing to do so at a time when the US has been increasingly depending on China’s clout to calm some highly volatile flashpoints in North Korea, Iran and Myanmar are remarkable.

For an administration that is known to make deliberate moves the Dalai Lama-Bush meeting is extraordinary in so much as it underscores Washington’s willingness to annoy an uncomfortable ally. One immediate fallout of the hospitality being extended to the Dalai Lama was that China pulled out of a meeting to discuss the issue of Iran’s nuclear quest. The meeting was scheduled for Wednesday in Berlin, the day the Dalai Lama is receiving this country’s highest civilian honor.

There is a perception both within China and outside that with 2008 Olympics approaching Beijing will become increasingly vulnerable to international pressure on various issues, including Tibet. It is not without accident that the Dalai Lama has been hosted by other influential leaders in the past few months.

He met Australian Prime Minister John Howard in June amid strong protests from China. He will meet Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper this month. In between he met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in September.