Dr Daniel Woker is the former Swiss Ambassador to Australia and now a Senior Lecturer at the University of St Gallen.
Due to China's size and importance, relations with Beijing are of a particular nature. Rather than a genuine give and take, it's often a case of 'you take and I give'. Countries and companies alike seem to forego principles and interests in order to stay on good terms with the mighty Middle Kingdom. Economic stakes are apparently too high to risk Beijing's ire or to ignore its whishes in areas judged by Beijing to be core interests.
Two telling recent examples of such behaviour are recorded here. First, a visit to some European countries by the highest spiritual authority of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, and the political head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Sikyong (Prime Minister) Lobsang Sangay. And second, the merger conditions imposed on Glencore by Chinese authorities for its takeover of Xstrata.
Last November in a piece about Mongolia, I wrote in this space about the rather elegant way the Dalai Lama is received there as the spiritual leader of the country's large Buddhist majority. Mongolia is of course the one country most dependent on China.
The same cannot be said of European countries, however economically important their relations with China have become, nor of companies such as Glencore/Xstrata, whose fusion took place last week after their total surrender to Chinese merger conditions.
First, a look at different European countries in their dealings with exiled Tibetan authorities. To their credit, both David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, some years ago, were ready to receive the Dalai Lama. Beijing made its displeasure known, and the consequences were apparent when the Tibetans visited recently, with the Dalai Lama gathering the Tibetan communities in Europe in a Swiss town and the Sikyong meeting with officials in France and in Brussels.
Why Switzerland for this main gathering? Even though the 'Free Tibet' office in Europe is located in London, Switzerland is the spiritual home of exiled Tibetans in Europe. This goes back to 1960 when some 2000 political refugees from Tibet found asylum in the Swiss mountains, choosing to settle in familiar surroundings high up. Quite a few of them and their offspring have become citizens and so, in some of Switzerland's most famous resorts, you might encounter young men and women, clearly not direct descendants of William Tell, conversing in the broad Alemannic brogue of Swiss alpine farmers.
So when the Dalai Lama and the PM addressed the Tibetan community of Switzerland and Liechtenstein (!) on 15 April, some 5000 of them gathered, more than on similar occasions in the UK, France, Germany or Belgium.
Unlike previous visits, the Dalai Lama was not received by a member of the Swiss Government but by Speaker of the House, a Green Party MP who is not part of the multiparty coalition governing the country. This led to some acerbic comments in the media. But compared to other countries, this level was still fairly high. In France it was a member of the Senate (as in Australia, the less important chamber) who received the PM.
Also, when French President François Hollande visited Beijing last month, he was careful to schedule two press conferences. At the first, together with his Chinese host, there was much mutual embracing of a 'multipolar world', diplomatese for a world free of US exceptionalism, coupled with the announcement of important bilateral business deals. It was only at the second media event that Hollande, alone, said that 'of course minority questions including the Tibetans' were also raised by him in his talks with Chinese authorities.
As regards London, even the contact of the Sikyong with a French Senator drew an envious comment from the aforementioned London office, saying 'if only we could get to that level here in the UK'. In Brussels, it was members of the European Parliament who met Lobsang Sangay.
This appeared to leave the Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile sad but still confident that the decade-old talks with the Chinese authorities, interrupted for three years, will resume and ultimately be successful. In media interviews in Switzerland, the PM insisted on his acceptance of Beijing's three vital points: full maintenance of sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of the PRC. He also laid out the government-in-exile's proposal for full autonomy under the Chinese constitution within all of the traditional Tibetan settlement areas which comprise almost a quarter of the Chinese mainland. Challenged on this point, he compared such a hypothetical autonomous province with Xinjiang, where the province for the Uighur minority comprises more than 15% of China's landmass.
With regard to the second example of pliant behaviour towards Chinese authorities, let me go back to a comment in this space on 17 April, when Stephen Grenville outlined the terms of the Xstrata-Glencore merger that the Chinese authorities have agreed upon, putting emphasis on concerns from buyers such as China as well as sellers such as Australia of market interruptions by vertically integrated commodity companies, of which Glenstrata will be the leading species.
Commentary in the Swiss media, challenged by one of the largest takeover battles ever on Swiss soil, went ultimately in a more ominous direction. It saw a total cave-in by the company, firstly over Glencore's copper mine in Peru, which China insisted the merged company had to divest and which is destined to get a new Chinese owner, and secondly over the long term delivery contracts negotiated between Glenstrata and China, which could prevent any real price competition for years to come.
And so it goes, with China calling the shots, secure in its belief that nobody, private or public, could ultimately go against its wishes.
Photo by Flickr user Magalie L'Abbe.