In much of the world, President Nicolas Sarkozy enjoys a reputation for being something of a diplomatic dynamo. In China, the energetic French leader has a strikingly different standing: he is Beijing's favorite international whipping boy.
The latest humiliation comes with Beijing's decision to boycott the 11th annual China-European Union summit, which has been scheduled to open in Lyon today. China stunned E.U. officials last week by announcing that its delegation of more than 150 political and business leaders would stay at home because, in the words of China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang, "the summit cannot be held in a sound atmosphere, nor can it achieve expected goals." The reason? The French President's plan to meet with Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama on December 6 as part of an event honoring fellow Nobel peace prize winner Solidarity leader Lech Walesa in Poland.(See pictures of the Dalai Lama's decades of spiritual leadership.)
"China firmly opposes any contacts with the Dalai Lama by foreign leaders in whatever form," Qin said in a statement released by the state-run Xinhua news agency. "We hope that France could fulfill its commitments, and properly deal with China's major concerns in earnest so as to create conditions for the steady development of bilateral relations."
There's nothing new in China being touchy on the subject of Tibet, of course. What makes this latest episode unusual is China's failure to call out other European leaders who have met with the Dalai Lama recently as British premier Gordon Brown did in May, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel did in August. Beijing also has little to say about E.U. officials who will speak with the Dalai Lama during his tour of Europe this month including officials from the Czech Republic, which assumes the E.U.'s rotating presidency from France in January. So why the exceptionally rough treatment for Sarkozy and France, which China is now threatening with possible diplomatic and trade retaliation?
The reason, says China expert and director of research at France's Institute of International and Strategic Relations Jean-Vincent Brisset, is "because France has repeatedly shown itself to be the weak link in Europe by knuckling under to pressure when other nations push China back." The Chinese, Brisset says, "only respect those who stand up for themselves, which the British and Germans have done in their dealings with the Dalai Lama before, and even Poland which is hosting the disputed event is doing as well."
But both Sarkozy and his predecessor Jacques Chirac have demonstrated a willingness to bend on diplomatic, political, and human rights conflicts in order to protect trade, says Brisset. Things have grown worse since China's suppression of riots in Tibet in March, which prompted Sarkozy to call on Beijing to "end the violence" there. Sarkozy suggested he might boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, a course of action taken by both Brown and Merkel. But after French companies in China weathered months of protests and boycotts by infuriated Chinese nationalists Sarkozy turned up at the Games opener claiming that France's role as E.U. president obliged him to make an appearance.
Even more embarrassing was Sarkozy's subsequent decision to cancel a post-Olympic meeting with the Dalai Lama in France. Though the French President initially said that "it's not up to China to fix my agenda", he wound up declining and sent his wife Carla Bruni and Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Kouchner instead. By the time the day of the meeting rolled around, the French press was reporting that the Dalai Lama had become so disgusted at Sarkozy's cave-in that the Tibetan leader feigned an illness to avoid having to greet the Plan B delegation. (In vain: he wound up hosting Bruni and Kouchner at the inauguration of a Buddhist temple in the south of France.)
Brisset says China is now exploiting recent history to use France as a wedge with which to divide Europe, export-dependent China's second largest trading partner. "China faces real trouble on human rights, trade, the ecology, and how it has managed the economic and financial crisis, and it doesn't want further problems from Europe," Brisset says, noting that the E.U. recently introduced new tariffs on Chinese goods. "If Sarkozy recognizes China is attacking France to divide Europe, and insists the E.U. come up with a firm collective stand to replace weak bilateral accords, this could be an opportunity. If he waffles and folds, China will win again."