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The see-saw of diplomacy

Mark Mardell | 22:34 UK time, Thursday, 18 February 2010

The meeting seemed to be choreographed to keep tensions damped down, in the Map Room, not the Oval Office. The only picture was a single still of President Obama and the Dalai Lama, apparently in animated conversation.

President Obama with the Dalai Lama; copyright: White House

But it doesn't seem to have worked. The White House statement was pretty tough:

"The President stated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People's Republic of China."

That last bit is where the White House felt they were being cleverly diplomatic, by backing the Dalai Lama's "third way"; that means autonomy within China rather than independence from it.

The Chinese response was very strong:

"The US act grossly violated the norms governing international relations...It also went against the repeated commitments by the US government that the US recognises Tibet as part of China and gives no support to 'Tibet independence'."

Fiery stuff. But I wonder how much it will matter in the long run. I suspect that even all this time after the end of the Cold War, we are still getting used to an older way of doing business.

The iron curtain divided nations into firm friends and dark enemies. Perhaps it is more normal for relationships between what used to be called Great Powers to see-saw up and down, hostile on some issues, co-operating on others.

The real test of US-China relations will not be the Dalai Lama but what happens on sanctions against Iran. We may know the answer to that question soon.

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