China, France and the Dalai Lama

Interesting article in Le Figaro about the price France is paying for Nicolas Sarkozy’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in Poland last December. Sarkozy campaigned on a pretty strong human rights plank — with particularly robust rhetoric reserved for Russia — and chose Bernard Kouchner, a militant advocate of liberal interventionism, as his foreign minister.

Since taking office, though, his approach to Russia has been pragmatic and surprisingly cordial. He also received Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi at Elysée Palace, a move condemned by even his own Undersecretary of Human Rights, Rama Yade. And as for Bernard Kouchner, although he’s been vocal about Darfur and the need to broaden the strategic objectives in Afghanistan to include aid and reconstruction efforts, he recently acknowledged that it’s unrealistic to think that foreign policy can be exclusively determined by human rights concerns.

As for China, Sarkozy made it one of his first foreign destinations after taking office, bringing with him a trade delegation headlined by Ann Lauvergeon, head of the French nuclear energy giant, Areva. He resisted pressure to boycott the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games held in Beijing, although he hid behind France’s EU presidency to do so. In fact, the meeting with the Dalai Lama was essentially a token gesture to mollify the pointed criticism he’s received for abandoning his human rights posture. And nevertheless, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s itinerary resembles, in Le Fig’s words, a Tour de France from the outside.

Apparently French-Chinese bilateral have been frozen by Beijing, and there’s growing pressure within the EU for France to smooth things over, which would basically mean backing down publicly on Tibet. (Paris has organized a China exposition for the Chinese New Year, but it’s unlikely to do the trick.)

The standoff here is a highly symbolic one between the West’s lip service to insistence on political liberalization as both a condition and consequence of increased globalization, and China’s insistence on the inviolability of national sovereignty. Symbolic because at the same time that Beijung is engaged in its high-profile arm wrestling match with Paris, it has largely ignored the meeting between the Czech Republic’s prime minister and the Dalai Lama just last month. But getting the French to eat crow, presumably with a nice glass of red to help it down, has decidedly higher value than the same helping served to the Czechs, even if they do currently exercise the EU presidency.

The outcome will be a very interesting indicator of whether, as I’ve argued, China’s brittle posture on Tibet will create opportunity cost barriers, both diplomatic and security, to its further rise, or whether its economic weight will lower the West’s values-based expectations even more than they already have been.

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