U.S. President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama at the White House today, drawing a protest from China, which accuses the exiled spiritual leader of pushing for an independent Tibet.
The meeting this morning was the third between Obama and the Dalai Lama and comes at a time of growing tensions over China’s assertiveness in Asia. The Chinese government lodged a formal diplomatic protest, saying the meeting would hurt ties with the U.S., according to a Foreign Ministry statement.
The meeting took place in private in the White House map room rather than the Oval Office.
The White House later released a photograph of the two men, and Obama, according to a statement, “reiterated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China.”
China accuses the 78-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner of waging a campaign for independence, while he says he is seeking autonomy for Tibet. The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against the Chinese occupation. Hundreds of thousands of Tibetans have died since then as a result of China’s policies, according to the International Campaign for Tibet.
“It will definitely have an impact, it won’t be good,” said Jia Qingguo, professor and associate dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University. “I think it will send a wrong message to China. It’s bad for the atmosphere of the relationship.”
While the U.S. is concerned about human rights issues in Tibet, the president is meeting the Dalai Lama “in his capacity as an internationally respected religious and cultural leader,” said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for Obama’s National Security Council.
The U.S. recognizes Tibet as a part of China and doesn’t back independence. The administration “supports the Dalai Lama’s ‘Middle Way’ approach of neither assimilation nor independence for Tibetans in China,” Hayden said.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement called on Obama to cancel the meeting, saying the U.S. was “crudely interfering” in its domestic affairs. The Dalai Lama has long been engaged in “separatist activities,” and “the issue doesn’t concern human rights or religion but sovereignty and integrity,” ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying separately said at a briefing in Beijing.
“It seems like this caught the Chinese leadership by surprise,” said Tao Xie, a professor of political science at Beijing Foreign Studies University. By holding the meeting soon after Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Beijing last week, the U.S. is sending “a double message: On the one hand we want to work with China; on the other we want to stick to our traditional policy of standing up for human rights.”
The White House statement after today’s meeting said, “The president and the Dalai Lama agreed on the importance of a positive and constructive relationship between the United States and China.”
In 2012, China said U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron had “seriously damaged” relations by meeting the Dalai Lama. Cameron, who made a three-day trip to China in December, said in an interview with CCTV that month that Britain and China have “come to an understanding” over the areas that had clouded ties.
Obama previously met with the Dalai Lama in February 2010 and July 2011. Next month, the president is scheduled to meet with Pope Francis during a trip to Italy.
The Dalai Lama took part yesterday in a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington that included Daniel Loeb, the billionaire founder of activist hedge-fund firm Third Point LLC.