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China hammers hard line on Tibet with warnings to Obama, Dalai Lama

China hinted at repercussions on Tuesday if President Obama meets the Dalai Lama as planned. It also rejected any talk of autonomy at the latest round of Tibet negotiations over the weekend.

By Staff Writer / February 2, 2010

People pass by a roadside stall selling images of Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in Dharmsala, India, on Tuesday. China warned President Barack Obama on Tuesday not to meet the Dalai Lama, saying any such meeting would harm bilateral relations.

Ashwini Bhatia/AP

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Beijing

China reasserted its tough stance on Tibet this week with warnings to both US President Barack Obama and representatives of the Dalai Lama.

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On Tuesday it cautioned President Obama not to meet the Dalai Lama or “seriously undermine the political foundations of Sino-US relations.”

Such a meeting, which the White House says is planned, “would threaten trust and cooperation,” said Zhu Weiqun, head of a Chinese government team that negotiated with representatives of the Dalai Lama over the weekend.

Mr. Zhu also gave a bleak assessment of the talks, which appear to have made no progress towards settling the future of Tibet. He said the two sides remained “sharply divided” on a wide range of issues.

The Tibetan delegation continued to demand “a high degree of autonomy” in Tibetan-inhabited regions, Zhu said, which Beijing “solemnly refuted.”

These questions “are crucial to Chinese territorial integrity and national dignity,” he added. “There is absolutely no room for negotiation or concessions on these issues.

Only if they completely give up these views could contacts and talks have a foundation.

Making countries ‘realize their mistakes’

Though no date has been set for a meeting between Mr. Obama and the Dalai Lama, White House spokesman Mike Hammer said last month that “the President has made clear to the Chinese government that we intend to meet with the Dalai Lama, it has been his every intention.”

Obama did not meet the Tibetan leader when he visited Washington last year, for fear of souring the atmosphere before the president’s trip to China last November.

Zhu did not specify how Beijing would react to a meeting, but said China would take “corresponding measures to make the relevant countries realize their mistakes.”

Tibet talks: eight years, few results

Beijing’s apparent refusal to discuss anything with the Tibetan delegation other than the personal future of the Dalai Lama and his entourage “takes the talks back to square one” after nine fruitless rounds, says Elliot Sperling, a Tibet expert at Indiana University.

“China is using the talks as a way to drag out the process until the Dalai Lama dies, when they believe the whole problem will go away,” he argues. “I don’t think there is any point for the Tibetans in continuing the talks.”

Other analysts are less pessimistic about prospects for the negotiations. “The message the Chinese are sending is conditional,” suggests Robbie Barnett, who teaches on Tibetan affairs at New York’s Columbia University. “It’s that we might give you something if you meet our conditions” such as stop meeting foreign leaders.

“It’s a heavy-handed squeeze attempt to get more concessions from the Tibetans,” says Dr. Barnett. “And the reason they can do it is that the Dalai Lama needs to produce some results to please his domestic supporters.”

Further negotiations likely

The Tibetan government in exile abandoned its demand for Tibetan independence in the face of considerable popular Tibetan opposition so as to seek a compromise autonomy solution with Beijing.

“The people in the government in exile are so invested in this policy that they cannot retreat,” says Professor Sperling. “They said giving up independence would work, but nothing has come of it and they are stuck.”

Tibetan negotiatior Lodi Gyari struck a more positive tone Tuesday, noting that a recent Chinese government conference on Tibet had acknowledged continuing poverty in Tibetan-populated areas of China, and called for new policies to boost farmers’ and herders’ living standards. Under a new approach, Beijing will put all Tibetan-populated areas under the same policy umbrella as the Tibet Autonomous Region itself.

“If we take away the political slogans, many of the issues that have been prioritized by the (conference) are similar to the basic needs of the Tibetan people outlined in our memorandum,” said Mr. Gyari. “So in order to have a common understanding of the real situation, we suggested a common effort to study the actual reality on the ground. This will help both sides to move beyond each others’ contentions.”

Zhu made no mention of this proposal during his press conference earlier Tuesday. He said only that his Tibetan counterpart Gyari “sincerely looks forward to the next round of talks” and said that China would “keep the door open” for further contacts, despite the lack of progress at the weekend.

“We want the negotiations to serve as a channel for the Dalai Lama to redress his mistakes,” he said Tuesday.

[Editor's note: We incorrectly identified Elliot Sperling's university. It is Indiana University.]