German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not attend the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, but her spokesman was quick to explain that the decision was not connected with China's crackdown on dissidents in Tibet.
The chancellor's decision was announced today by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a meeting with his European counterparts in Brdo, Slovenia today.
But in Berlin, Merkel's spokesman, Thomas Steg, has told reporters that her decision did not represent a boycott over the Chinese government's handling of the Tibet issue.
Another spokesman for Merkel, Hanns-Christian Catenhusen, insisted in a telephone interview with ABC News, "The chancellor had made it clear even before the unrest in Tibet that she wasn't going to go to China for the Olympic Games. She won't be going to Beijing before October, when a bilateral meeting with her Chinese counterparts is scheduled."
It is not clear why the German foreign minister, who has been critical of Merkel's recent meeting with the Dalai Lama, raised the issue.
Relations between China and Germany were seriously damaged when Merkel received the Dalai Lama at the chancellery in Berlin in September 2007 — the first time a German leader agreed to meet with him — despite vehement protests from Beijing.
Chinese officials had even called on Germany not to allow the Dalai Lama to enter the country.
Merkel, however, had insisted on receiving the exiled Tibetan leader, stressing the importance of defending human rights and meeting dissidents.
She later described the hourlong meeting as "private and informal talks" at which she had assured the Dalai Lama of her support for his efforts to maintain the cultural identity of Tibet and for his policy of nonviolent striving toward religious and cultural autonomy.
The Chinese government was furious with Berlin over the Dalai Lama's visit and suspended most high-level contacts as well as several important bilateral meetings that had been in the planning for some time.
While most Germans reacted positively to Merkel's decision not to give in to pressure to cancel the meeting, it was Steinmeier who attacked her after she met with the Dalai Lama.
He accused her of seeking publicity at the expense of trade.
Last year alone German exports to China amounted to $40 billion, making Germany China's biggest European trading partner.
Steinmeier also criticized Merkel for taking an unpragmatic moral tone towards China and he called for her "to avail herself of the expertise of the foreign ministry."
Merkel, however, did not back down.
At a press conference she said, "As chancellor, I decide with whom I meet and where I meet them. I would like to see everyone in the government standing squarely behind this position, otherwise China's respect for us can hardly be expected to grow."
While the German media welcomed her firm stance on human rights issues, German diplomats busied themselves in the following months with efforts to patch up relations with China.
Since then, Merkel has been a lot more low-key on Chinese politics. During the recent political violence in Tibet, she called for both the demonstrators and the Chinese security forces to show restraint.
"Violence, irrespective of which side it comes from, will not lead to solutions to the outstanding issues," her spokesman, Steg, quoted her saying at a press briefing in Berlin.
He also said that Merkel had repeated her call for the Chinese government to engage in direct talks with the Dalai Lama, adding that while Germany remained committed to religious and cultural autonomy for the Himalayan territory, it was equally committed to a one-China policy that rejected any separatist aims.