Germany went into damage control mode on Monday, Sept. 24, after Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit with the Dalai Lama angered China. Beijing cancelled two high-level meetings in apparent retaliation.
The Dalai Lama laughed at a bust of himself in Germany, but China was not amused
In an attempt to assuage China's anger at the meeting between Merkel and the Tibetan spiritual leader, Merkel's foreign policy advisor Christoph Heusgen phoned China's ambassador to Germany to assure him of the chancellor's desire to pursue close bilateral ties.
"He called the Chinese ambassador in Berlin today to inform him about the talks with the Dalai Lama but also to make clear that this conversation is something totally natural. It should be possible without harming German-Chinese ties," German government spokesman Thomas Steg said at a press conference in Berlin.
"Heusgen assured the ambassador that we share great interest in continuing, intensifying and promoting our good ties with China," Steg said, saying that he believed these would not suffer serious damage as a result of Sunday's unprecedented meeting.
However, he added that Merkel believes "human rights cannot be sacrificed for economic reasons."
Berlin announced on Monday that Beijing had called off a standing breakfast meeting between the countries' foreign ministers in New York on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly because of "scheduling difficulties."
Chinese-German relations have taken a hit, but not likely a serious one, experts say
Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries was stood up by Chinese officials on Sunday at a bilateral justice forum, but she said she was also trying to reschedule and mitigate diplomatic fallout.
"We hope that this dialog will not suffer lasting damage," she said.
Foreign affairs spokesman Martin Jäger said Berlin is trying to find a suitable time for a meeting in New York between Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi this week.
"We have heard from the Chinese side that this breakfast will not be able to take place this year because of time constraints," Jäger said.
Merkel signaled that she supported the Dalai Lama's quest for cultural autonomy for the Himalayan region, sticking to the course she steered during a visit to China in August in which she readily tackled human rights issues.
Tibet has been under Chinese authority since the mid-1700s. It had varying degrees of autonomy until the Chinese Communist Party arrived in 1950. After a failed revolt by Tibetans against the Chinese in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to India.
He has repeatedly called for Tibetan self-rule.
Frank Umbach, the head of the research unit on China at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told the news agency AFP that Beijing's indignant response could prove to be a storm in a teacup.
Berlin says it wants close bilateral ties, despite differences over Tibet
"It is very important for China to save face, and the reaction is hardly surprising if you take into account China's track record in such cases," he said, referring to China's stance toward France in the 1990s when it sold weaponry to Taiwan. He did not think there would be lasting damage from the incident.
"Merkel has been very consistent and predictable on human rights towards China and also Russia," he said. "And over the past two years, there has been a 180-degree turn among European Union members and a new consensus has emerged."