October 19, 2007
The German Chancellor’s meeting with the Dalai Lama caused strong negative reactions in Beijing. Why did Merkel hold this meeting? What does it mean for Sino-German relations?
The meeting can now be viewed with the warm reception in Washington of the Dalai Lama this week when President Bush presented hm with the Congressional Gold Medal.
On Sunday 23 September, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met the Dalai Lama, for what her spokesman said were “private, informal talks”. However, they took place at the Chancellor’s Berlin office. No statement on the subjects discussed was issued. Merkel’s spokesman, Ulrich Wilhelm, said she “paid tribute to the Dalai Lama as a religious leader and assured him of her support in his efforts to maintain the cultural identity of Tibet and in his policy of non-violent striving toward religious and cultural autonomy.”
This was the first time the Dalai Lama has been received by a German head of government, although the Dalai Lama met Merkel when she was opposition leader.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said the Dalai Lama was “a political exile involved in activities aimed at splitting the motherland.” The Dalai Lama says he only wants greater autonomy for the region.
Merkel met the Dalai Lama despite opposition from Beijing and concerns among German industry that the talks could harm trade ties with China. Germany had confirmed its adherence to a one-China policy ahead of the meeting. The German leader made an official visit to China in August.
Why did Merkel hold this meeting in full knowledge that it upset China and could be damaging to trade? Answering this question requires her conduct to be viewed from her point of view and not Beijing’s. The Chancellor is an honest, direct leader who stand up for her principles. While the fundamental problem for China is that the Dalai Lama is a political as well as religious leader, Europeans make a distinction. The question for them is not why should Merkel see him but why shouldn’t she? In no way was it intended to support or encourage Tibetan independence. It needs to be understood that Europeans feel that Beijing has treated Tibetans very badly. There is also a small but vocal Tibetan lobby.
This sympathy for Tibetans must also be seen against the backcloth of severe criticism in Europe of China’s policy in Myanmar, Darfur and Zimbabwe.
German Chancellor Merkel’s meeting with the Dalai Lama is regarded as an action seriously undermining Sino-German relations. However, I do not think it will, other than in the short-term. Beijing must makes its disapproval felt publicly, but the Chinese leadership is pragmatic. The Sino-German bilateral relationship is mutually beneficial. Furthermore, Merkel is the EU’s most influential leader. Finally, I believe Beijing appreciates, or will appreciate, that Merkel is a far more solid and reliable partner than Schroeder. There is no gap between Merkel’s words and deeds.
Beijing is clearly upset about the Dalai’s reception in both Berlin and Washington and may be wondering whether this is a coordinated policy. It is a sign of some transatlantic closing of ranks vis-à-vis the PRC.