By Roberta Rampton and Sui-Lee Wee
WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – President Barack Obama met exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on Friday in a show of concern about China’s human rights practices, and in spite of warnings from China that the visit would “seriously damage” ties with Washington.
The private meeting appeared to last about an hour, although the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was not seen by White House photographers as he entered or exited the complex.
Obama reiterated his support for Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions and human rights for Tibetans, the White House said in a statement.
“The president stressed that he encourages direct dialogue to resolve longstanding differences and that a dialogue that produces results would be positive for China and Tibetans,” the statement said.
Obama also said he does not support Tibetan independence from China and the Dalai Lama said he was not seeking it, the White House said.
It was the third time Obama had met the Dalai Lama, who the White House calls “an internationally respected religious and cultural leader.” Previous meetings were in February 2010 and July 2011.
In what appeared to be a small concession to the Chinese, the visit was held in the White House Map Room, a historically important room but of less significance than the Oval Office, the president’s inner sanctum.
China calls the Dalai Lama a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who seeks to use violent methods to establish an independent Tibet. The Dalai Lama, who fled to India after a failed uprising in 1959, maintains he only wants genuine autonomy for Tibet and denies advocating violence.
China took control of Tibet in 1950. Human rights groups say China tramples on the religious, cultural and linguistic rights of Tibetans and enforces its rule using brutal methods.
The United States recognizes Tibet as part of China and does not support Tibetan independence, but supports the Dalai Lama’s approach for more autonomy, and has long urged the Chinese government to hold talks with him, said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council.
“We are concerned about continuing tensions and the deteriorating human rights situation in Tibetan areas of China,” Hayden said ahead of the meeting.
In Tibetan regions of China, including four provinces outside Tibet, more than 120 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 in protest against Chinese rule. Most have died.
The meeting came at a delicate time for Sino-U.S. relations. The United States has expressed concern about China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the East China Sea and South China Sea and Obama’s U.S. strategic pivot, or rebalancing, toward Asia, is seen as a reaction to the growing clout of China.
As part of the strategy, Obama plans a week-long visit in late April with allies Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Friday’s meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama comes less than a week after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited China. It is unclear whether he had briefed China in advance about the planned meeting.
Both countries are increasingly inter-dependent and have to cooperate on international issues such as Iran and North Korea. China is also the United States’ biggest foreign creditor. As of July 31, China held $1.28 trillion in U.S. Treasury bonds, according to Treasury Department data.
The meeting with the Dalai Lama was announced with little fanfare the evening before it took place, but prompted a stern rebuke from the Chinese government.
“The United States’ arrangement for its leader to meet the Dalai would be a gross interference in China’s internal affairs and is a serious violation of the norms of international relations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement ahead of the meeting.
“It will seriously damage Sino-U.S. relations. We urge the United States to take seriously China’s concerns, immediately cancel plans for the U.S. leader to meet the Dalai, do not facilitate and provide a platform for Dalai’s anti-China separatist activities in the United States,” she added.
NO SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES
Diplomats in Beijing have told Reuters Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to meet at a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands next month.
When asked whether China would cancel the meeting, Hua later said at a daily news briefing: “If any country deliberately insists on harming China’s interests, in the end, it will also damage its own interests and will harm the bilateral relations between China and the relevant country.”
“(If) the U.S. president wishes to meet any person, it’s his own affair, but he cannot meet the Dalai,” she said. “The Dalai is definitely not a pure religious figure. He is using the cloak of religion to engage in long-term activities to separate China. He is a political exile.”
Previous meetings between Obama and the Dalai Lama have not had serious repercussions.
In 2011, after the last meeting between the two, China responded with predictably vehement words but stopped short of threatening retaliation, indicating that Beijing was keen to avoid tensions between the world’s biggest economies.
“I think China will send a strong message of protest publicly and privately, trying to warn President Obama to not go too far, because we still have a major, new relationship to build,” said Sun Zhe, director of the Center for U.S.-China Relations at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University.
Xi has stressed repeatedly that China wants to build “a new brand of relations between major powers”, based on principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and cooperation.
The White House did not provide information about how or when the meeting was organized. The Dalai Lama had been speaking to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative organization, in Washington on Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland and David Brunnstrom in Washington and Natalie Thomas and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Chris Reese and Sandra Maler)