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How Obama’s trouser choice signals a harder line with China


The Dalai Lama meets with US President Barack Obama in 2014. Note the formal attire.



HONG KONG — Presidential meetings with the Dalai Lama are nothing if not symbolic.

After all, the Tibetan spiritual leader holds no formal office, and his homeland is not an independent state, let alone a truly “autonomous region,” though that's what China calls it.

And the fact that China throws a fit any time a foreign leader grants an audience to His Holiness means that every minute aspect of these meetings — from their location and length to the doorway through which the Dalai Lama exits — must be carefully calibrated to send the intended message.

That’s why certain details of last Friday’s surprise meeting between Obama and His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso were particularly striking as possible signs of a toughening White House attitude toward Beijing.

Take Obama’s outfit and body language, for starters.

Here is how the president looked in the official photo from the last time he met the Dalai Lama, in 2011. (The Obama administration releases only one photo per meeting.)

Dalai Lama- Obama meeting, 2011

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Observe the khakis, the unbuttoned shirt, the casual crossing of the legs. Obama is shown listening politely, if a bit vacantly, to the Dalai Lama expounding some point.

Compare that with the official photo from Friday’s meeting.

Dalai Lama- Obama meeting, 2014

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Here, Obama appears engaged and formal. He’s ditched the khakis for a suit and tie, and his brow is furrowed in concern. Where he was previously relaxed and loose-limbed, here he is upright, serious and sober.

These subtle signals are not likely to be lost on Beijing.

Unlike previous occasions, the White House announced the visit at the last minute, denying Beijing the chance to protest and mount a loud, vigorous campaign against meeting with the 78-year-old exile.

Of course, that didn’t stop Chinese state media from gnashing their teeth. Newspapers and websites immediately rolled out a battery of stories strongly opposing Obama’s visit with a leader Beijing likes to call “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Officials condemned the meeting as “seriously interfering in China’s internal affairs” and demanded it to be canceled.

One Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman went so far as to say that “the US president wishes to meet any person, it’s his own affair, but he cannot meet the Dalai Lama.”

(The irony of complaining about “interference” while telling the president of the United States whom he can meet seems not to have dawned on the official.)

Coming a little over a month before Obama’s long-awaited trip to Southeast Asia, the provocative meeting sends a savvy signal to US allies in the region that America remains confident in the face of increased Chinese assertiveness in the South and East China Seas.

Moreover, China’s predictably over-the-top response only helps bolsters the case that Asian nations should welcome a more robust US presence.

It all comes together to project the impression that President Obama wanted to signal a tougher attitude toward China.

That said, there were concessions built in with the toughness.

To avoid irritating China, the Dalai Lama was hosted, as usual, in the downstairs Map Room instead of the Oval Office. And the official announcement stressed that Obama was seeing the Dalai Lama solely “in his capacity as an internationally respected religious and cultural leader.”

The last sentence of the press release even offered a favorable spin for Beijing.

“The President and the Dalai Lama agreed on the importance of a positive and constructive relationship between the United States and China,” it said.

We will perhaps see if any damage has been done when Obama and Xi Jinping meet at a nuclear summit in the Netherlands next month.