By Roberta Rampton & Sui-Lee Wee
WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) – President Barack Obama met exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on Friday in a show of concern approximately China's human rights practices, & in spite of warnings from China that the visit would "seriously damage" ties with Washington.
The private meeting appeared to last approximately 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.
p> Obama reiterated his support for Tibet's unique religious, cultural & linguistic traditions & human rights for Tibetans, the White House said in a statement.
"The president stressed that he encourages direct dialogue to resolve longstanding differences & that a dialogue that produces results would be positive for China & Tibetans," the statement said.
Obama moreover said he does not support Tibetan independence from China & 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 & cultural leader." Previous meetings were in February 2010 & 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 significant room yet 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 & denies advocating violence.
China took control of Tibet in 1950. Human rights groups say China tramples on the religious, cultural & linguistic rights of Tibetans & enforces its rule using brutal methods.
The United States recognizes Tibet as part of China & does not support Tibetan independence, yet supports the Dalai Lama's approach for more autonomy, & 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 approximately continuing tensions & 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 approximately China's increasingly assertive behavior in the East China Sea & South China Sea & 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 & the Philippines.
Friday's meeting between Obama & 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 approximately the planned meeting.
Both countries are increasingly inter-dependent & have to cooperate on international issues such as Iran & North Korea. China is moreover 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, yet 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 & 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 & 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 & 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 after said at a daily news briefing: "If any country deliberately insists on harming China's interests, in the end, it will moreover damage its own interests & will harm the bilateral relations between China & the relevant country."
"(If) the U.S. president wishes to meet any person, it's his own affair, yet he cannot meet the Dalai," she said. "The Dalai is unquestionably 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 & the Dalai Lama have not had serious repercussions.
In 2011, after the last meeting between the two, China responded with predictably vehement words yet 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 & 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 & cooperation.
The White House did not provide information approximately 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 & David Brunnstrom in Washington & Natalie Thomas & Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Chris Reese & Sandra Maler)
Foreign PolicyPolitics & GovernmentDalai LamaBarack ObamaChinaWhite House