BEIJING – The announcement of President Obama's upcoming meeting with the Dalai Lama drew a predictably stern response from Beijing, but there are indications China may begin winding down the recent spike in tensions.
The Foreign Ministry urged the U.S. to cancel the meeting scheduled for next Thursday, warning the move could bring "further damage to Sino-U.S. relations."
"We urge the U.S. side to fully understand the high sensitivity of Tibet-related issues, honor its commitment to recognizing Tibet as part of China and opposing 'Tibet independence,"' spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement posted Friday on the ministry's Web site.
China accuses the Dalai Lama of pushing to free Tibet from Chinese rule, and protests vociferously over his contacts with foreign leaders. Obama had put off a meeting with the 74-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner last year as a courtesy ahead of his November visit to Beijing.
The visit is the latest prickly issue to test relations, coming on top of cyber spying accusations, trade disputes, and U.S. dealings with Taiwan, the self-governing island Beijing claims as its own territory.
China's vigorous response on those and other issues has startled some observers, presaging greater conflict as China, emboldened by its newfound economic clout, seeks to block criticism, dominate discussions and pursue its narrowly defined national interests.
Yet, although Obama's visit with Tibet's exiled leader stands to exacerbate frictions, Beijing appears to have concluded that the current turbulence in what it considers its most important bilateral relationship has gone far enough.
An extended rift could upset cooperation with Washington on the global economy and a host of bilateral issues. Their leaders also have numerous contacts this year to prepare for, including a visit to Washington by Chinese President Hu Jintao and an upcoming high-level economic and political forum in the United States.
The fact that the Obama meeting comes in the middle of China's Lunar New Year holiday, a time of family visits and banqueting when government offices are closed, may further mute Beijing's response.
Sun Zhe, a U.S. relations scholar at Beijing's elite Tsinghua University, said he doesn't expect an unusually harsh response to next week's meeting, limiting that to attacks in the state media and some diplomatic measures.
"China already has a clear stance on the Dalai Lama issue," Sun said.
China realizes it cannot block the meeting and won't allow it to create a major crisis in ties, said Joseph Cheng, a Chinese politics expert at the City University of Hong Kong.
"They are frictions, but they can be contained," Cheng said. "Both sides understand each other's baselines and both sides will work hard to avoid a serious deterioration in the bilateral relationship."
A further indication that tensions may be receding is Beijing's apparent decision not to block an upcoming visit by an American aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, to the Chinese territory of Hong Kong — despite a vow to suspend military-to-military contacts over Washington's announcement last month of a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan.
"This is a sign that China has not totally closed its military contact with the U.S. and overall, the two sides are still keeping channels of communication open," said Tsinghua's Sun.
Beijing also seems to have called a time-out on other disputes, including calls by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Chinese government to investigate hacking attacks that led to Google's threat to pull out of China.
Beijing has also not moved to make good on a threat to retaliate against U.S. companies involved in the Taiwan arms sale.
Chinese media outlets that fulminated for weeks over such perceived U.S. outrages seemed to adopt a softer tone on Friday. The Global Times, a jingoistic tabloid published by the Communist Party's main People's Daily newspaper, ran reports that largely portraying relations in a cooperative light.
In past China-U.S. crises, Beijing has toned down the rhetoric in state media as a way of indicating to the public that events have run their course.
While media outrage panders to the Chinese public's desire to stand up to the U.S., China's leaders will offer a more measured response, Cheng said.
"There is a rising nationalism in China, there's no doubt about it. But the government won't respond irrationally beyond taking limited retaliatory measures," he said.