The breakfast guest was carefully shielded from the media, in an effort to prevent journalists from getting a glimpse of Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi as he walked into the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood at about 8:30 on a mild November morning.
Inside, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier shook hands with Yang with a certain amount of trepidation. Steinmeier still had unpleasant memories of his last meeting, in New York, with his Chinese counterpart, who spent a full 21 minutes serving up a litany of complaints on behalf of his government. By meeting with the Dalai Lama, Jiechi told Steinmeier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had offended his people and gambled away Beijing's trust.
But this time Steinmeier quickly noticed that the tone had changed. Yang, who had preferred Chinese when lecturing Steinmeier in New York, was speaking English again. He even congratulated Steinmeier on his inauguration as Germany's new vice chancellor.
The breakfast, held in a hotel suite rented specifically for the occasion, lasted 45 minutes. Then Steinmeier quickly said his goodbyes so that he could speak to German journalists waiting in front of the hotel about the upcoming Middle East summit in Annapolis.
The Georgetown meeting marked the beginning of an almost two-month period of behind-the-scenes diplomacy aimed at defusing a deep crisis in Chinese-German relations.
Since Merkel received the Tibetan Dalai Lama at the Chancellery on Sep. 23, 2007, the relationship between Berlin and Beijing has been nothing short of frosty. A scheduled dialogue over human rights and the constitutional state was cancelled. The chancellor has not spoken with her Chinese counterpart, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, in more than three months.
Steinmeier and Yang could only conduct their diplomatic efforts to repair the damage in secret. The outcome will be on display on Tuesday. If all goes well, Yang will pay a visit to Berlin, where he plans to attend a conference on Iran's nuclear program. The two foreign ministers plan to meet separately before the conference -- but this time in full view of the public, and with a press conference scheduled after the meeting.
Only a few of Steinmeier's close associates were kept informed about the weeks of secret negotiations between the Germans and the Chinese. Not a word was mentioned about the effort at the daily meetings of senior officials at the Foreign Office, and even Merkel's Chancellery was not kept in the loop. "It was a classic piece of diplomacy," says one of the people involved, adding that it was also "an extremely difficult exercise."
At their meeting in Georgetown, the two ministers agreed to state their positions in an exchange of letters, thereby establishing a new basis for talks. Steinmeier and Yang each wrote two letters, in which every word was carefully considered. The negotiating team in Berlin even met on New Year's Eve to fine-tune the wording. Beijing's final response arrived in Berlin last Friday.
The Chinese wrote that they wanted Germany's assurance that, despite Merkel's reception of the Dalai Lama, it would continue to -- at the very least -- respect the unity of China, including Tibet and Taiwan. During a similar controversy in 1996, Steinmeier's predecessor, Klaus Kinkel, even had to assure the Chinese that Germany would no longer intervene in China's internal affairs, and that it would not discuss differences on the issue of human rights "in a spirit of confrontation."
The Germans were keen to avoid their statements being construed as kowtowing to the Chinese. Steinmeier's negotiators insist that they did not promise "non-intervention" or that Germany would refrain from criticizing China on human rights issues. "We did not pay any price," they say.
But placating the government in Beijing wasn't Steinmeier's only challenge. The chancellor will also be paying careful attention to whether Germany isn't making too much of a sacrifice to mend ties -- despite her call last week for "good, intensive relations" with China.
In addition to straining relations with Beijing, the spat over Merkel's meeting with the Dalai Lama sparked an all-too-public dispute over foreign policy within Germany's ruling grand coalition of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats. The aftershocks can still be felt today. For instance, although Steinmeier informed Merkel about the meeting in Georgetown and his intended correspondence with Yang, he did not clue her in on the details.
From the standpoint of the Foreign Office, the correspondence merely reestablishes the "formal workability" of relations. According to Steinmeier's staff, the two governments are still a long way from a trusting, cooperative relationship.
Diplomats at the Foreign Office believe that Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will not be so quick to forgive the chancellor for receiving the Dalai Lama. When Merkel visited Beijing a short time before the meeting with the Dalai Lama, Hu and Wen gave the chancellor the red carpet treatment -- an effort, which, to the Chinese, made their expectations of Merkel abundantly clear.
According to one of Steinmeier's advisors, the situation is reminiscent of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's dispute over the Iraq war with US President George W. Bush. It eventually ended in telephone calls, public handshakes and even friendly conversations at summit meetings, says the advisor, "but the mistrust never went away."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan