The Dalai Lama Calculation

All Western leaders have to make a political calculation over the Dalai Lama: what is the value of showing support for human rights by meeting the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader minus infuriating China?

U.K. prime minister David Cameron seems to have got his reckoning wrong. Beijing cancelled a visit to Britain by Wu Bangguo, chairman of the National People’s Congress standing committee, after Cameron and Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister and leader of Cameron’s party’s coalition partner, met the Dalai Lama earlier this month when he was in London to receive the Templeton prize. The meeting was billed as private and held not on government premises but at St. Paul’s Cathedral during the award ceremony. Beijing still regarded this as an “affront to the Chinese people”, and launched “solemn representations” with London.

The symbolism of canceling a visit by Wu, who is second in the Politburo hierarchy, may be lost on many Britons outside diplomatic and Sino-centric circles, who likely won’t have heard of him and would be surprised to learn Wu outranks the prime minister they may have heard of, Wen Jiabao. Those in diplomatic and Sino-centric circles will be decoding where the cancellation ranks among rebukes. Wu is not only senior but also the most senior Chinese to travel to the UK in recent years, but his visit was going to be no more than a stopover en route to Europe. Nor was the cancellation officially announced. It only emerged after Wu’s trip had started.

France was given the cold shoulder after its then president, Nicolas Sarkozy, announced plans to meet the Dalai Lama in 2008. A China-EU summit he would have chaired was scuppered and new big-ticket commercial deals with France stopped for a couple of years, but then resumed. Smaller countries get harsher treatment. Norway, where the 2010 Nobel peace prize was presented to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident currently imprisoned for subversion, has yet to return to Beijing’s good books.

The U.K. may be commercially too important to China to be left standing in the corner for too long. London is making a great play to be the non-Asian trading hub for the yuan as Beijing pushes it towards a greater role in the international financial system. The only viable alternative to be London would be New York, a switch that would have officials in Beijing making a separate set of calculations of their own.

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