French President Nicolas Sarkozy met Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, at a party given in Gdansk on Saturday 6 December by Poland’s former President Lech Walesa – a meeting which has angered China.
Beijing threatened sanctions before the meeting even took place. In fact, China has already cancelled a summit with the EU. Was the meeting in Gdansk so significant for China? Or is Europe simply so insignificant for China? Or are both true?
The Dalai Lama is a welcome guest in Europe. In 1988 he chose the European Parliament as the place to launch his proposals for Tibetan autonomy. In 2001 he was allowed to officially address the assembly, a privilege rarely accorded to anyone who is not a politician.
The Dalai Lama’s current European tour again included a visit to Brussels. When asked, he brushed aside any concerns about the weekend gathering in Poland. "It’s just a reunion", he said. "I’m going to say hello, that’s all."
Mr Sarkozy and the Dalai Lama were due to meet on Saturday at a gathering of Nobel Peace Price laureates, marking 25 years since Mr Walesa was awarded the honour. The French president’s presence in Poland is a pleasant coincidence, joked the Dalai Lama: after meeting the charming Carla Bruni, he was eager to meet her husband too.
It quickly became clear that China was not amused. Europe recognises China’s sovereignty over Tibet. But each meeting between European leaders and the Dalai Lama, China warns, is a dangerous step towards "internationalising" an internal matter.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel felt the consequences of taking such a step last year, when she invited the Dalai Lama to Berlin to join an inter-faith forum. China was furious and cancelled a visit by Germany’s finance minister to Beijing. Relations between Germany and China were badly bruised. In June, however, China’s foreign minister announced everything had been forgiven and forgotten
This time the stakes seem higher. Beijing last week cancelled a summit France was to have hosted in Lyon on 1 December. It was not to have been a summit with France alone, but with the entire European Union. Nor was to have been a casual, social ‘get-together’ but an emergency meeting to discuss the global financial crisis.
According to John Fox, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, an international think tank, it’s quite clear what all this means:
"China places almost no value on the European Union anymore. The reason China did this is because China can do it. Because China had nothing to lose from cancelling the summit. The complex web of links – financial links, companies, investments – make the European Union China’s largest trading partner, but those links go on, in a sense, irrespective of government."
China is now threatening to boycott French firms and products. Its reprisals against Germany last year never went this far. Nor did those it took against British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for meeting the Dalai Lama in June.
China’s tough stance towards France could have something to do with April’s wild protests in Paris when Chinese athletes were carrying the Olympic torch through the French capital. China accused Paris of not doing enough to control the protests.
Beijing said it had expected better, "especially from France", a reference, according to Mr Fox, to Mr Sarkozy’s predecessor, President Jacques Chirac. During Mr Chirac’s presidency, Mr Fox points out, France was China’s main business partner.
"France has traditionally been China’s closest partner in Europe. It’s a policy which Jacques Chirac believed would lead to direct commercial benefits for France, and broader political benefits. Because it played into his view of a multi-polar world with Europe as one pole, China as another.
Because Sarkozy has come in and – in a sense – reversed a lot of those policies [by] prioritising relations with the Americans and being prepared to stand up to China, the Chinese have been particularly hard on the French. And they effectively have sent signals which said: ‘do as Chirac did unto China’."
Shaking hands with Hitler
Ironically, in August half the European Parliament jumped on Mr Sarkozy for his alleged pro-China stance. The leftist MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit described the French president’s presence at the Olympic Games as "shaking hands with Hitler."
To talk or not to talk, making deals or defending one’s principles, these are difficult dilemmas, not least for Mr Sarkozy.
Perro de Jong