BEIJING (Reuters) – China stepped up its criticism of Washington on Monday after President Barack Obama met the Dalai Lama, but stopped short of threatening retaliation, indicating Beijing was keen to avoid escalating tensions between the world’s biggest economies.
Obama met the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader for 45 minutes on Saturday, praising him for embracing non-violence while reiterating that the United States did not support independence for Tibet.
Beijing, which accuses the Dalai Lama of being a violent separatist, responded with predictably vehement words on Monday via its tightly controlled state media, though without mentioning any broader retaliation that could deepen strains.
“Generally, the Chinese believe that the U.S. government meets with the Dalai Lama either to appease its domestic hardliners or to vent its dissatisfaction with China in other fields,” wrote the Global Times, a popular tabloid published by Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily.
The Nobel Peace laureate is “a drop of spittle on China from the West”, the newspaper said in its editorial.
The People’s Daily warned the meeting “will undoubtedly negatively affect the development process of Sino-U.S. relations”, which have suffered numerous setbacks of the past few months with arguments over trade, Taiwan and the Internet.
The Dalai Lama denies seeking independence for Tibet, saying he wants a peaceful transition to true autonomy for the remote Himalayan region, which China has ruled with an iron fist since 1950, when Chinese troops marched in.
CONFINED TO ANGRY WORDS
But the angry rhetoric echoed many previous statements about the Dalai Lama’s encounters with foreign political leaders, suggesting that China’s leaders will confine their reaction to angry words.
The Foreign Ministry, which published two predictably angry statements in the early hours of Sunday, has made no further comment on the meeting.
“The Chinese protest over Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama is routine and unlikely to have any real consequences,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, in emailed comments to Reuters.
“As a matter of principle, China must make its displeasure known to the U.S., as it has done so for many years,” he added.
“But the Chinese are also very pragmatic and understand that this meeting is symbolic. So they will not want to harm the substantive Sino-American relationship because of this incident. They will not take any retaliatory measures.”
While the latest spat has happened while leaders in Washington are at odds over how to raise the $14.3 trillion U.S. debt ceiling in time to avoid default, China is highly unlikely to dump its U.S. Treasury bills to punish the United States.
China, the United States’ biggest foreign creditor, holds more than $1 trillion in U.S. Treasury debt and has warned Washington to be responsible in protecting investors’ interests.
Selling U.S. Treasury bills “would be a rather risky move, and one which is openly hostile if explicitly framed as a ‘response,’” said Scott Harold, an associate political scientist with the RAND Corporation.
“It would dramatically worsen US-China ties, and for what? After all, what, specifically, is the effect of the President’s meeting with the Dalai Lama that harms China’s actual control on the ground in Tibet? Zero.”
Analysts said Washington choreographed the meeting to make it appear as low-key as possible, taking into account China’s sensitivity to the issue.
Like the previous meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama in February 2010, Saturday’s get-together took place in the White House Map Room rather than the more official Oval Office and the White House issued only one photograph of the meeting.
Zhu Feng, a professor of Peking University, said the way Obama hosted the Dalai Lama shows that Washington was trying to minimize the negative impact.
Though Beijing and Washington bicker frequently, ties have improved drastically following President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States in January, and both work closely on issues like the global economic recovery, North Korea and Iran.
Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama coincides with Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to Tibet to mark 60 years since the region’s “peaceful liberation.” Xi is widely expected to become president in 2013.
Exile groups say Tibet is under even tighter security than normal, and foreign tourists have been banned.
Tibetans in China expressed their support for the Obama meeting and disseminated photographs of the meeting on Twitter.
Beijing-based Tibetan writer Woeser wrote on Twitter on Monday that the “slander and attack” by some Party leaders on the Dalai Lama has “deeply offended many Tibetans”.
(Additional reporting by Sally Huang; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Miral Fahmy)
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