Brussels has reacted with astonishment to a decision by China to postpone next week's EU-China summit in retaliation for visits by EU leaders with Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
On Wednesday (26 November), the Chinese government told the French EU Presidency that Prime Minister Wen Jinbao would not be travelling to Lyon for the summit, which was expected to focus on disputes over China's huge trade surplus with the EU as well as coordinating a global response to the financial crisis.
The Chinese "based their decision on the fact that the Dalai Lama will be visiting several EU countries at the same time and will meet with heads of state and government as well as presidents of European institutions," the EU said in a statement released today.
China's decision was perceived in Brussels as ill-fated, showing that China's communist leaders consider isolating Tibet and the Dalai Lama a bigger priority than enhancing the Sino-European "strategic partnership". But our leaders should not get distracted, according Stanley Crossick, founder of the European Policy Centre, a think tank.
Writing on Blogactiv, Crossick stressed that the "gulf of misunderstanding between China and the West over the Dalai Lama and Tibet is huge and misperceptions abound […] With the onset of economic depression, the vulnerability of the world's financial system, climate change, energy security, terrorism, our leaders should not be distracted from working together by Tibet and the Dalai Lama".
French President Nicolas Sarkozy will meet the Dalai Lama in Gdansk, Poland, at a gathering of Nobel Peace Prize winners, said Luc Chatel, a spokesman for the French government. Sarkozy "has always said he'll meet the Dalai Lama not as a head of state, but as spiritual leader," Chatel told reporters yesterday after a weekly cabinet meeting in Paris.
The Dalai Lama is also expected to visit the European Parliament on 4 December. "Only time will tell whether it is the intention of Beijing to boycott all the democratic institutions of the European Union," said Marco Cappato, a liberal MEP.
The decision to call off the summit came four days after the Tibetan government-in-exile, headed by the Dalai Lama, suspended stalled negotiations with China over Tibet's future. The talks have not made progress towards resolving Tibet's demand that China loosen its 57-year-old grip on the Central Asian region. China says Tibet's desire for autonomy is a prelude to seeking full independence and breaking up the Chinese state.
The European Council for Foreign Relations described the cancellation of the summit as "a spectacular gesture and an unprecedented step in the bilateral relationship," accompanied by "the sorry spectacle of European disunity over the financial and economic crisis," which "has confirmed to China's leaders that Europe is not a unitary actor and be publicly provokes at no significant cost".
The next meeting between Chinese and EU leaders is now likely to be postponed at least until the Swedish EU Presidency, scheduled for the second half of 2009.