WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama will host Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama for a meeting, the White House announced Thursday, prompting swift and vehement protest from China.
The exiled leader is in the U.S. for a three-week speaking tour and has met with Obama twice before. Both previous meetings rankled Beijing, which bitterly opposes the Dalai Lama's quest for greater Tibetan autonomy and is wary about Obama's efforts to increase U.S. influence in the region.
Obama's meeting with the Nobel laureate on Friday will be in his capacity as a cultural and religious leader, the White House said. But China urged Obama to immediately cancel the meeting, accusing him of letting the Buddhist monk use the White House as a podium to promote anti-Chinese activities.
"The U.S. leader's planned meeting with Dalai is a gross interference in China's domestic politics," said Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry. "It is a severe violation of the principles of international relations. It will inflict grave damages upon the China-US relationship."
Beijing routinely protests when world leaders grant an audience to the Dalai Lama, whom Chinese officials denounce as a separatist responsible for instigating self-immolations by Tibetans inside China.
The U.S. had no immediate response to the rebuke from China. But as if to indicate an overreaction had been expected, the White House reiterated when it announced the meeting earlier Thursday that the U.S. recognizes Tibet as part of China and doesn't support Tibetan independence.
"The United States supports the Dalai Lama's 'Middle Way' approach of neither assimilation nor independence for Tibetans in China," said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House's National Security Council. She added that presidents of both parties have met with the Dalai Lama for decades.
At the same time, officials said they were concerned about tensions and deteriorating human rights in China's Tibetan areas, urging Beijing to resume talks with the Dalai Lama or his followers without preconditions.
China, in its response to the meeting, said it had relayed its concerns formally to the U.S. and urged Washington to treat its concerns seriously.
Obama was to host the Nobel laureate for a private, morning meeting in the White House's Map Room. Traditionally, when Obama meets with presidents and prime ministers, he hosts them in the Oval Office and allows reporters to witness a short portion of the meeting. The decision to hold the meeting elsewhere and to close the meeting to reporters could signal an attempt to avoid the appearance of a formal meeting between two heads of state.
Relations between the U.S. and China are already on edge over Beijing's increasingly aggressive steps to assert itself in the region, including in territorial disputes with its smaller neighbors. China's emergence as a leading global economic and military power has strained ties with Washington, and the two have also clashed over cyber theft and human rights.
The Dalai Lama is a frequent visitor in the U.S. During his current three-week visit, he also has public speaking events in California and Minnesota. On Thursday, he delivered a message of compassion and care for humanity while addressing free market mavens at a right-leaning Washington think tank.