While German Chancellor Angela Merkel is often criticized for sitting on the fence when it comes to domestic political issues, she has been noticeably more willing to take a stand on foreign policy, particularly when it comes to human rights. This was amply illustrated this Sunday when she insisted on receiving the Dalai Lama in the Chancellery despite vehement protests from Beijing.
The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader spent an hour with the chancellor in what were described as private and informal talks. After the meeting Merkel's spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said that she had assured the Dalai Lama of "her support in his efforts to maintain the cultural identity of Tibet and in his policy of non-violent striving toward religious and cultural autonomy."
The Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 during a failed uprising against Chinese rule, remains popular there, while abroad he is widely respected for his commitment to non-violence. But Beijing regards him as a separatist although he has repeatedly said he only seeks autonomy for the region.
The 1989 Nobel Peace Prize winner has met with many world leaders, including US President George W. Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard, but Merkel was the first German chancellor to agree to meet with him.
There have been concerns, particularly among German businesspeople with interests in China, that Sunday's meeting could damage Berlin-Beijing relations. China's Foreign Ministry had called in Germany's ambassador to Beijing earlier this month to protest the impending visit and China cancelled a two-day meeting scheduled for this weekend on legal issues with German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries citing "technical reasons."
The German press on Monday plays down the risk of any long-term damage to relations with Beijing and praises the chancellor for her emphasis on human rights in her foreign policy.
The conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"There are no arguments to back up the repeated protests and interventions that come from China every time the Dalai Lama is received by a foreign politician. Beijing officials hope that their anger and harsh words will make the Dalai Lama an untouchable and reduce his influence."
"But they know too well how unconvincing their attacks are. Recently they have been resorting to allegations that the Dalai Lama, contrary to what he says, in fact wants Tibet to break away from China. But they provide no proof for these assertions."
"Beijing is trying to demonize the Dalai Lama because it lacks the courage for a meeting and dialogue. There is hardly any other person in the world where this attempt is more likely to fail."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"The chancellor's resolve is to be welcomed because a policy of cosying up to Beijing, such as that pursued by (former Chancellor) Gerhard Schröder, is of no use to anyone and only covers up existing conflicts. The small disturbance will not undermine bilateral relations: The Chinese are reliable and sensible enough to be able to distinguish between tactics and strategy. They wanted -- as did Merkel -- to send out a signal, and they have done so. Neither side has any interest in further turbulence."
"The real tests lie ahead. The Olympic Games are taking place in Beijing next year and China will soon be the world's biggest export nation. Beijing's global influence is growing -- and with it the temptation for other countries to not look quite so closely at the human rights situation there. Merkel is thus to be applauded for continuing to defy, in all friendliness, Germany's biggest partner in Asia."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"It is good that Merkel received the Dalai Lama in the chancellery.... It will not endanger the unity of China -- the Dalai Lama does not advocate independence for Tibet, but rather seeks autonomy -- nor will it change Germany's policy toward China."
"The reaction from Beijing was prompt but quite limited in the light of the neurotic petulance with which the Chinese leadership regards Tibet. If Beijing is interested in good political and economic relations, then it will overcome the current mini crisis."
The financial daily Handelsblatt writes:
"(Merkel's) stubbornness in inviting the Dalai Lama to the chancellery despite the anticipated and prompt uproar in Beijing illustrates Merkel's mantra of a foreign policy based on values."
"One shouldnt dismiss this foreign policy conducted on the basis of morals as naïve or damaging. Politically, she is ensuring that Germany is again taken seriously as a credible intermediary. And Merkel's open words will not damage business. China places economic interests above political sensitivity."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"Angela Merkel stuck to her invitation despite Beijing's protests and received the Dalai Lama in Berlin. She deserves respect for this."
"In the area of foreign policy, Merkel is sticking to her principals when it comes to the issue of human rights. The Chinese occupation of Tibet violates international law and China's rise to an economic superpower doesnt change that in the slightest. Every time the Dalai Lama meets a top politician this message is given a platform."
"The chancellor visited China a few weeks ago. For many years these trips by German leaders have been above all trade shows for industry, where businesses and politicians prefer to ignore the deplorable humanitarian and legal situation in the country. But Merkel criticized the lack of citizens' rights in China ."
"Merkel often seems to lack a definite position on political issues and it is often a mystery what she actually stands for. But when it comes to the protection of human rights, she makes her position clear. That could well be a legacy of her past as a citizen of the former East Germany. Whatever the case, it is an example of courage."
-- Siobhán Dowling, 12:30 p.m. CET