Image: Activist art
Anil Dayal  /  AP
A Tibet Freedom Movement activist makes a portrait of Barack Obama with his blood in Shimla, India, on Thursday.
updated 2/5/2010 7:43:37 AM ET 2010-02-05T12:43:37

Just a week after enraging China with an arms sale package for rival Taiwan, President Barack Obama risks more damage to this crucial relationship by agreeing to meet with the Dalai Lama in two weeks.

The truth is, he has little choice.

Obama already postponed the visit once, angering U.S. lawmakers and human rights groups. As Obama struggles to regain his footing after political setbacks, the last thing he needs is to open himself up to fresh criticism that he is kowtowing to China.

So on Thursday, his administration confirmed what had long been expected: Obama will meet with the Dalai Lama when the Tibetan monk visits Washington on Feb. 17-18.

China immediately urged the United States to scrap the meeting to avoid hurting bilateral ties. China accuses the Dalai Lama of pushing for Tibetan independence, which the Dalai Lama denies, and believes that shunning the exiled Tibetan monk should be a basic principle of international relations for countries that want to deal with China.

In reality, China could not have been surprised by Thursday's announcement.

Every U.S. president for the last two decades has met with the Dalai Lama, and those visits are considered powerful signs of the American commitment to human rights. Obama also told Chinese leaders last year that he would meet with the monk.

Widespread U.S. support
The Dalai Lama enjoys widespread support in the United States. High-profile celebrities call him friend; college students flock to his frequent campus lectures; powerful U.S. lawmakers would call another postponed meeting a betrayal.

Video: Obama delays Dalai Lama meeting Obama is focused on domestic matters as he deals with a struggling economy and a series of Republican political victories. He does not want to add an outcry over his snubbing the Dalai Lama again.

For the last year, Obama has faced criticism that his administration is more eager to win Chinese cooperation on nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea and climate change and economic crises than to hold Beijing accountable for what activists call an abysmal rights record.

Much of that criticism stems from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's comments during a trip to China a year ago that human rights should not interfere with improving U.S.-China ties. Activists also said Obama failed to make human rights a big enough priority during his China trip in November.

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Just a month before that high-profile trip, Obama faced anger for putting off a White House visit when the Dalai Lama came to Washington.

Little to show
Still, he has little to show from China for his outreach. As Beijing refuses to give ground on many key issues, the Obama administration has shown an increasing willingness to get tough.

In September, Obama slapped tariffs on a flood of Chinese tires entering the United States. Although he antagonized China and heard complaints about U.S. protectionism, he was praised by powerful union allies, who blame Chinese tire imports for the loss of thousands of jobs.

In recent weeks, the administration announced the $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan, the self-governing democratic island Beijing claims as its own; Clinton urged Beijing to investigate hacking attacks that led to Google's threat to pull out of China; and Obama vowed to get tough with China on a currency dispute.

Now, China's anger will be focused on the Dalai Lama's visit.

China maintains that Tibet has been part of its territory for centuries, but many Tibetans say the region was functionally independent for much of its history.

Tibet and Taiwan are China's most sensitive issues, and Obama risks Chinese retaliation by stoking anger in Beijing.

Already, China has threatened to punish U.S. companies involved in any arms sales to Taiwan and has suspended military exchanges with Washington.

Many will be watching whether the Dalai Lama meeting wrecks a possible visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to Washington in April.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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