China riled by Obama's Dalai Lama meeting

President Barack Obama yesterday finally met the Dalai Lama in the White House, an event set to test the US-China relationship in an already turbulent year.

China says the meeting could damage "trust and co-operation" between the two countries. "We are in one of those moments where it is going to take maturity and calm on both sides not to have things unravel," says one former senior official.

What is widely seen as the most important bilateral relationship in the world is already strained by disputes over issues such as the value of the renminbi, cyberattacks on Google and $6.4bn (€4.7bn, £4bn) in US arms sales for Taiwan.

Yet Mr Obama has been criticised extensively at home for his decision not to see the Dalai Lama - whom China denounces as a "splittist" - when the Tibetan spiritual leader was in Washington last year.

Yesterday the White House said that in the meeting Mr Obama had "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". It added that both men agreed "on the importance of a positive and co-operative relationship between the US and China". The tortuous phrasing reflected the delicacy of the whole China dossier for the administration. But if Mr Obama had little room for manoeuvre, analysts and officials said the ball was in Beijing's court.

An early sign will be whether China abstains or votes in favour of United Nations sanctions on Iran. Another will be whether China's President Hu Jintao attends an international summit on nuclear security that Mr Obama is hosting in April.

Mr Obama has also intensified his calls for China to revalue its currency, arguing this month that increased exports to Asia would mean "hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of jobs here in the US".

His call - on an issue the administration has signalled it will make a priority this year - added to a series of issues currently taxing the relationship.

The White House had originally decided not to hold the meeting with the Dalai Lama - and also hold off the long-awaited Taiwan arms sales announcement - until after Mr Obama's visit to China last November.

Some US officials had expressed hope that a successful trip - and agreement at the December climate change summit in Copenhagen - would have built enough momentum to overcome perennial sources of tension such as the Dalai Lama and Taiwan.

But, after disarray at Copenhagen, relations have become more, not less, tense. US diplomats argue current difficulties have been exaggerated, pointing out that the last time the US announced a large-scale arms sale to Taiwan, Beijing cut off all military-to-military ties.

Beijing has not gone that far this time, despite suggesting possible sanctions against companies involved in the sale, such as Boeing.

They add that the US's role as an Asian power, with deep military and diplomatic involvement throughout the region, increases Washington's leverage over Beijing. In that sense, the US is in a different position from other, smaller countries in deciding whether to meet the Dalai Lama.