The lesson to learn from President Obama’s delayed visit with the Dalai Lama? As the old adage goes: “Never put off 'til tomorrow what can be done today.”

The original visit was scheduled for October 2009. It was consistent with the precedent set by the previous three presidents of meeting with the Dalai Lama when he passed through Washington, D.C. (10 visits altogether) Had President Obama conducted the meeting as originally scheduled, the Chinese would certainly have expressed displeasure, but this would have been part of the normal give-and-take in Sino-American relations.

Instead, the president decided to forgo the visit, publicly claiming that he needed to see President Hu Jintao before he could see the Dalai Lama. In effect, he signaled, perhaps unwittingly, that the United States now valued relations with China to such an extent that it was prepared to break precedent to curry favor with Beijing.

That this stance aligned with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declaration in February 2009 that the United States would not allow human rights issues to “interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate-change crisis and the security crisis” only reinforced the message to Beijing. From China’s perspective, the administration was clearly suggesting that human rights, and the issue of Tibet in particular, was one that they would sideline.

Now, four months later, the United States appears to be reneging on this position. As a result, today’s visit garnered far more attention than it would have had it occurred as originally scheduled. Worse, it occurs amid other sources of discord, including the Google-China imbroglio, Secretary of State Clinton’s speech on Internet freedom, the announcement of arms sales to Taiwan, and the unveiling of the Quadrennial Defense Report (QDR), which specifically notes the need to hedge against China. Coupled with ongoing Sino-U.S. trade controversies, it would appear, from Beijing’s perspective, that the United States is now orchestrating a harder line policy towards the PRC.

Were the administration actually pursuing a coherent policy, that would be one thing. But there is no evidence that it has, in fact, developed a consistent policy line towards China, either on trade or security. Instead, the administration is sending an incoherent jumble of messages -- on the one hand abasing itself by (literally) chasing down Premier Wen Jiabao at Copenhagen, while simultaneously threatening tariffs against Chinese products. Beijing is antagonized, without even the solace in Washington that the U.S. has stood by its principles.

Dean Cheng is a Research Fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation

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