BEIJING (Reuters) - China accused President Barack Obama of damaging ties by meeting the Dalai Lama and said it was up to Washington to repair relations between the two global powers, while stopping short of threats of retaliation.
Obama held a low-key meeting in the White House on Thursday with the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled leader, in the face of wider tensions with Beijing over U.S. weapons sales Taiwan, China’s currency policies, trade disputes and Internet censorship.
Beijing responded with predictably vehement words, but did not mention any broader retaliation that could deepen strains.
“The U.S. act amounted to serious interference in Chinese domestic affairs, and has seriously hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and seriously damaged China-U.S. relations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement on the ministry website (www.mfa.gov.cn).
The United States should “immediately take effective steps to eradicate the malign effects” of the meeting, said Ma.
“Use concrete actions to promote the healthy and stable development of Sino-U.S. relations,” he said.
China’s recent rancor over this and other disputes could complicate Obama’s efforts to secure its help on issues such as imposing tougher sanctions on Iran. It has threatened sanctions over the planned U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
But Beijing’s statement about the meeting echoed many previous statements about the Dalai Lama’s encounters with foreign political leaders, including then U.S. President George W. Bush — suggesting that China’s leaders will confine their reaction to angry words.
“This certainly isn’t the first meeting between a U.S. president and the Dalai Lama, and so both sides knew what was coming and China’s response reflected that,” said Jin Canrong, an expert on China-U.S. ties at Renmin University in Beijing.
“But I think it’s too early to say tensions have passed. There’s still the U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and there are also disputes over trade and the currency that could escalate.”
Washington has complained that China has skewed trade flows in its favor by holding down the value of its yuan currency. China regards self-ruled Taiwan as a breakaway province.
Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankui “lodged solemn representations” with U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, the official Xinhua news agency said.
In another sign that Beijing does not want tensions with Washington to escalate, China has this week allowed a U.S. aircraft carrier to berth in Hong Kong, a former British colony and now a self-administered territory under Chinese control.
China has sometimes barred U.S. navy ships from stopping at Hong Kong during times of tension, including in 2007, when the USS Kitty Hawk was denied entry.
Chinese Communist troops marched into Tibet in 1950. The Dalai Lama fled in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, and has since campaigned for self-rule from exile.
Beijing accuses the Dala Lama of fomenting unrest and seeking to split Tibet from China. The Dalai Lama says he is merely seeking greater autonomy.
In the predominantly Tibetan region of Tongren in northwest China’s Qinghai province, monks expressed their support for the Obama meeting, saying they celebrated the event with a large firework display.
“This is great news for the Tibetans,” said Jokhar, a local monk. “We don’t care that it makes the government angry. It makes us very happy that Obama met him.”
Tsering, a Tibetan celebrating the lunar new year on Thursday, smiled when he heard the meeting was about to take place.
“It lets us know we have not been forgotten,” he said.
Obama encouraged China and the Dalai Lama’s envoys to keep up efforts to resolve their differences through negotiations, despite recent talks having yielded little progress.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Tongren, China; and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie