By ELIZABETH HOLMES in Denver, JOHN D. MCKINNON in Washington and JASON DEAN in Beijing
With the Beijing Olympics just two weeks away, Sen. John McCain brought China to the forefront of the foreign-policy debate Friday by meeting with the Dalai Lama.
Despite a recent focus on Europe and the Middle East because of Sen. Barack Obama’s overseas trip, China is likely to dominate the news coverage in the coming weeks as the Games get under way.
The Republican presidential contender sat down with the exiled Tibetan spiritual and political leader in Aspen, Colo., to discuss “issues of mutual concern,” a McCain aide said, including talks between the Dalai Lama and China, as well as how “the international community can best support the Dalai Lama in his efforts.”
After the meeting with the Dalai Lama, Sen. McCain offered tough criticisms of China and urged its leaders to show more progress in addressing political grievances.
“The U.S. welcomes good relations with China, but it does no service to the Chinese government and certainly no service to the people of China for the U.S. and other democracies to pretend that the suppression of rights in China doesn’t concern us,” Sen. McCain said.
Over the years, activists have turned the Dalai Lama into a symbol not just of the struggle for Tibetan autonomy but, more broadly, of political and human rights in China. Especially given the timing, Sen. McCain’s meeting is a strong show of sympathy for critics of the Chinese regime at a time when the world’s attention is focused on the country.
Most voters see China as more of an adversary than an ally, according to The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released this week — the survey showed 54% think of China as a foe, while only 23% view it as a friend — even though a clear majority, 63%, believe President George W. Bush should attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, while only a quarter said he shouldn’t. Sen. McCain’s meeting with the Dalai Lama appears to be partly an effort to inoculate himself from the criticism Mr. Bush is likely to get from human-rights activists.
To some extent, “he’s trying to draw a distinction between himself and the president, who’s going to the Olympics,” said Charles Freeman, a China scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
CONFLICT IN TIBET
Sen. Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, has spoken with the Dalai Lama twice in recent months, a campaign aide said. He talked by phone with the Dalai Lama in April, at the height of the Chinese government’s crackdown on Tibet, and met with him in Sen. Obama’s role on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Obama also has expressed a willingness to meet with the spiritual leader one-on-one.
China‘s government strongly objects to foreign leaders meeting with the Dalai Lama, who Beijing insists wants to wrest Tibet from Chinese control. In the past year, Beijing has publicly lashed out at Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and German Chancellor Angela Merkel for hosting him. When Mr. Bush met privately at the White House with the Dalai Lama in October, a Chinese government spokesman blasted the meeting as “gross interference in China’s internal affairs.”
For his part, Mr. Bush tries to strike a delicate balance in his interactions with the Dalai Lama and with China more broadly. Mr. Bush has met three times with the Dalai Lama, but each time, the meeting has occurred in the presidential residence, not in the Oval Office — a distinction meant to signal to the Chinese that the Dalai Lama was being received as a spiritual leader rather than as a political one. Still, on the last visit, in October, Mr. Bush presented the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest civilian award, in a ceremony at the Capitol.
White House officials declined to comment on whether they thought Mr. McCain’s meeting was meant to distance the candidate from Mr. Bush or score political points off China.
“As the Chinese tell us, any meetings on Tibet or with the Dalai Lama are a sensitive subject for them,” said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. But he added that “when the president meets with him, he meets with him because he’s a great spiritual leader, not a political figure.”
John Ackerly, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, said Sen. McCain had requested the meeting months ago and that the Dalai Lama was looking for international support for his “efforts to engage the Chinese in a direct dialogue” on Tibetan autonomy. Talks earlier this summer were unsuccessful, and Mr. Ackerly said there were hopes for new talks after the Olympics.
Mr. Ackerly said the Dalai Lama was concerned that the meeting not appear to be an endorsement and that the Dalai Lama has talked with Sens. Obama and Hillary Clinton.
–Jay Solomon in Paris contributed to this article.