BEIJING ~ China’s unprecedented decision to cancel a summit with the European Union over Tibet shows an increasing willingness for Beijing to flex its ever-strengthening global muscle, analysts said on Thursday.
The China-EU summit, due to take place on Monday in France, was called off at the last minute by the Asian giant, which said it was unhappy at French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plans to meet the Dalai Lama after the meeting.
“This is an unusually strong way of sending a signal,” said Robbie Barnett, professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University in New York.
“The Dalai Lama has been visiting Western capitals since 1987 but there has not been a response to this degree – the cancellation of a multilateral summit.”
China has in the past called off visits or talks with foreign officials – Germany’s finance minister, for example, was forced to cancel a trip to China in December last year after Chancellor Angela Merkel met with the Dalai Lama.
China has insisted for many years that it opposes foreign leaders meeting the Tibetan spiritual leader, who it maintains is trying to win independence for his Himalayan homeland that has been under Chinese rule since 1951.
“But this is unprecedented, it’s serious, China has never before cancelled summits,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“China feels much more powerful than before and wants to impose its rules on the rest of the world.”
The decision to cancel the summit comes amid an accumulation of irritants between the EU and China, Cabestan said, culminating in a number of actions planned in Europe for December that were bound to anger Beijing.
These included the Dalai Lama’s visit to several countries in the EU, his meeting with Sarkozy on December 6, and the European Parliament’s formal awarding of the Sakharov Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Hu Jia on the 17th.
Xing Hua, head of the Europe research centre of the Chinese government’s China Institute of International Studies, said Beijing’s response was borne out of genuine frustration.
“China was forced to do this, as it cannot continue to tolerate heads of state recognising so lightly the head of a secessionist movement,” Xing said.
But more than a simple diplomatic signal, some analysts said this could be a deliberate attempt by China to try and split nations within the EU.
“There are internal divisions among the EU powers, and this is a squeeze to try and see who will stick to their principles and who believes they mustn’t upset China… it’s a high-stakes game,” said Barnett.
He cited several recent high profile U-turns in Europe, including the refusal by Germany’s foreign minister to meet the Dalai Lama in May after Merkel’s talks with the Buddhist spiritual leader caused diplomatic problems.
The Pope also refused to meet him last year, despite having held discussions with him before.
“These are spectacular successes for pressure politics on the Tibet issue,” said Barnett.
But others pointed out that it was doubtful China would have flexed its diplomatic muscle in such a big way if it had been meeting with the United States.
“If this was a meeting with the United States, then China wouldn’t have done this, so it shows that Europe just comes second,” said Li Fan, a researcher at The World and China Institute, an independent think tank in Beijing.
“China thinks the Tibetan issue is more important than its relations with Europe.”
Still, the move came at a time when the US presidency was in transition – a move that Barnett said was significant.
“This is more than a chess play; this is diplomatic hardball.”