PARIS – China took the extraordinary step Wednesday of indefinitely postponing a summit with the European Union in retaliation for plans by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and other European officials to meet with the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama.
The Chinese decision was a dramatic example of the lengths to which Beijing will go to try to internationally isolate the Dalai Lama, a 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner who wants greater autonomy for his Himalayan homeland that China insists is part of its territory.
China's action was first announced Wednesday by would-be summit host France and then confirmed publicly Thursday morning by China's Foreign Ministry in Beijing.
Pulling out of the summit also suggests that countering criticism on Tibet and boxing in the Dalai Lama are bigger priorities for China's communist leaders than working with the EU and nations like France on solutions to the global financial crisis. The diplomatic snub may also be intended as a warning to the incoming U.S. administration of President-elect Barack Obama to tread carefully on the prickly question of Tibet.
The Dalai Lama will visit the Czech Republic, Belgium and Poland from Saturday, his spokesman Tenzin Taklha said. China's ire seems mostly directed at Sarkozy's plans to meet the Tibetan leader at a Dec. 6 ceremony in Gdansk, Poland, to honor Lech Walesa, the Polish founder of the Solidarity pro-democracy movement that helped bring down communism.
A French official, who was not authorized to discuss such matters publicly, said Chinese authorities specifically cited the Sarkozy meeting.
China's Foreign Ministry, in its Thursday statement, criticized the French meeting plan and said that China "must withdraw from the China-EU summit." It said that top Chinese officials "resolutely oppose foreign leaders having any form of contact with the Dalai" Lama.
The ministry continued that it was regrettable that the summit has been deprived of "the required good atmosphere" and it was now "impossible for it to obtain the anticipated result."
"The reasons for this action and the responsibility for the current situation lie not with the Chinese side," the ministry said.
The meeting is still planned, despite China's ire, said French government spokesman Luc Chatel. Sarkozy has previously said in relation to meeting with the Dalai Lama that "it is not for China to fix my agenda nor dictate my meetings."
Because France currently holds the rotating presidency of the 27-nation EU, Sarkozy was to have hosted the EU-China summit that was scheduled for Monday -- just five days prior to his long-awaited Dalai Lama meeting -- in the southern French city of Lyon with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
No date for a future summit has been set and the EU regrets China's decision, the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Sarkozy's office said a follow-up France-China meeting on Tuesday also was indefinitely postponed.
The French Foreign Ministry said Chinese authorities cited the Dalai Lama's visit to Europe and meetings with EU heads of state and government during the trip. It did not name the EU leaders.
The Czech government, which will inherit the EU presidency from France at year's end, said it was not planning to meet with the Dalai Lama. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk is likely but not certain to meet with him, said a Polish official not authorized to discuss the plans publicly. Belgium's prime minister, Yves Leterme, will receive the Tibetan leader on Wednesday at his residence in his capacity as a religious leader.
EU officials say there are no plans for the Dalai Lama to visit the European Commission, the EU's executive, or meet with top commission officials, although he is to address the European parliament in Brussels, Belgium, on Dec. 4.
John Fox, a former British diplomat to Beijing now with the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, said postponement was "the most severe measure that China could take without completely ruining the relationship" with the EU, a major trade and supposedly strategic partner for Beijing.
China may be using the postponement to divert attention from its apparent reluctance to dip into its $1.9 trillion in reserves for a global bailout fund, Fox said. China also is trying to bully Sarkozy to return to the more China-friendly policies of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, and sending a warning shot on Tibet intended "80 percent for France, 10 percent for the rest of Europe and 10 percent to Obama," he said in a telephone interview.
The summit postponement marks another downturn in a year of strained relations between China and France.
China, the Olympic Games host, was furious that vociferous and unruly protests disrupted the passage of the Olympic flame through Paris in April.
Sarkozy also was the first world leader to raise the possibility of skipping the games' opening ceremony to protest China's violent crackdown in Tibet after riots and protests there in March. A piqued China responded by discouraging tourism to France and with calls from Chinese to boycott French products. Sarkozy backed off and attended the Olympic ceremony.