If President Obama intended to make a firm gesture by meeting the exiled Dalai Lama yesterday, it has to be said that it was a very tentative one.
True, he agreed to greet him in the White House, despite the most vociferous objections from the Chinese, who regard Tibet's religious head as a "splittist".
But then he met him in the Map Room, not the famous Oval Office. And he did away with the usual joint press conference that goes with official visits from foreign dignitaries. That is better than Gordon Brown's pathetic gesture of meeting the Dalai Lama in Lambeth Palace, when he came to London last year, to underline the point that this was a non-political occasion.
But the Tibetan leader isn't only a religious leader. In the eyes of many Tibetans, both within China and in exile, he is the embodiment of the nation, its culture and its special character.
Which is why the Chinese so mistrust, and fear, the Dalai Lama's influence, for all his protestations of seeking a peaceful resolution to Tibetan demands for autonomy.
And it is why the Chinese would prefer foreign governments to treat him – if they host him at all – as a visiting cleric rather than a political premier. Hence the convolutions that have gone on in Washington and in London (although not when the Dalai Lama visited Mrs Merkel in Berlin in 2008). The world now fears China's power and its wrath.
They are wrong to humiliate themselves in this way. The blunt truth is that China has no intention of giving the Tibetans any concession whatsoever. Western temporising with Beijing won't help the Tibetans one bit. It will only betray Tibetan aspirations and our own principles.
The Dalai Llama should be treated with full honour for what he is – a seeker after peace, a symbol of his people and one of the world's most significant spiritual voices.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies