German leaders zigzag in relations to Dalai Lama | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 18.02.2010
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German leaders zigzag in relations to Dalai Lama

As the Dalai Lama meets with President Barack Obama, German leaders may be thinking back to their own past controversies with China over Tibet's spiritual leader.

Dalai Lama giving a scarf to Angela Merkel

Merkel met the Dalai Lama and accepted a scarf from him

Whenever the Dalai Lama goes anywhere, the Chinese get annoyed.

The spiritual leader of the Tibetan people is seen by the Chinese as a threat to their country's unity, and they see every meeting with him as an expression of support for the break-up of their country. Now it's the United States and President Barack Obama that are the object of Chinese displeasure. But the Germans have also had their fair share of Dalai Lama troubles in the past.

Back in 1996, the then-German foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel, found his invitation to China withdrawn after the German parliament voted to condemn Chinese repression in Tibet.

Kinkel had himself met the Dalai Lama the year before, but, in a gesture which was highly criticized at the time, he refused to accept the white shawl which the Dalai Lama always hands out. Adrienne Woltersdorf, head of Deutsche Welle's Chinese service, said she thought the gesture reflected the problems Germany has with the Dalai Lama quite accurately.

Zigzag course

"It's a kind of zigzag course," she said. "German politicians have always debated very intensely how to meet the Dalai Lama, whether to meet, on what level and even in which building. It's a difficult issue, especially because Germany is a very big export nation with strong economic ties to China."

Fischer and Dalai Lama

Joschka Fischer met the Dalai Lama several times

Kinkel's successor as foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, met the Dalai Lama several times - in the foreign ministry building, and he accepted the scarf. But at the same time, his boss, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, made a point of not having anything to do with the Tibetan issue. Schroeder was known for his prioritizing of economic issues, so it came as no surprise that he didn't want to risk good business on a powerless Tibetan leader with no money to spend on German engineering products.

"[Schroeder's] China policy focused on the shared values in the Chinese-German relations instead of emphasizing the divisive issues," said Woltersdorf, "so he tried to drop human rights down [the agenda], and deal with more constructive and economic-oriented topics."

The roles were reversed when, in 2007, Chancellor Angela Merkel met the Dalai Lama officially in the Chancellery. Then it was the foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who implied that he thought the meeting was just grandstanding. Human rights policy is not something for the shop window, he said. But Merkel remained firm.

Strong relations with China in spite of the Dalai Lama

Steinmeier and Jang Jiechi

Steinmeier and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi declare the spat over

"I have always maintained that the relationship between Germany and China is far too important that a meeting with the Dalai Lama should call into question what we have built up together," she said after the dust had settled a bit.

Woltersdorf said she was right. "It's a diplomatic game," she said, adding that she expected the same procedure with regard to the Dalai Lama's visit to the US - a couple of months of bad temper, followed by a return to normal relations.

But she did have a warning. "The only difference now is China's new strength," she said. "We can't judge how far China is prepared to go in punishing foreign governments for meeting with the Dalai Lama."

The US and Barack Obama may be taking a bit more of a risk than the Germans have taken in the past. Who needs whom more nowadays? The German experience - before the economic crisis which changed the balance of power in the world - suggests that both sides still need each other enough to mean that any damage is likely to be limited.

Author: Michael Lawton
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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