Obama’s Dalai Lama Meeting Shows Balancing Act With China

U.S. President Barack Obama sought to keep up pressure for religious freedom on China as he met with the Dalai Lama, balanced with a desire to maintain a working relationship with the Asian superpower.

With China protesting the Dalai Lama’s visit yesterday to the White House, Obama expressed support for the “unique” traditions of the Tibetan people and for human rights while affirming that the U.S. doesn’t support any attempt to separate Tibet from the rest of China.

“The United States recognizes Tibet to be a part of the People’s Republic of China,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “But the U.S. strongly supports human rights and religious freedom in China. We’re concerned about continuing tensions and that the deteriorating human rights situation in Tibetan areas of China.”

The Chinese government lodged a formal diplomatic protest, saying the meeting would undermine the U.S.-China relationship, and summoned the charge d’ affaires to a meeting last night.

Chinese officials expressed “strong indignation and firm opposition” to Obama’s meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

The relationship between the world’s two biggest economies is a focal point of Obama’s attempt to shift the focus of U.S. foreign policy toward the Pacific. China is asserting its military and economic clout in the region as Obama is looking to expand U.S. influence and trade. The U.S. president is scheduled to travel to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines in late April.

‘Constructive Relationship’

A White House statement released after the meeting said, “The president and the Dalai Lama agreed on the importance of a positive and constructive relationship between the United States and China.”

Smoothing the relationship will be one of the first items on the agenda for new U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus, who was sworn in yesterday by Vice President Joe Biden. The timing of the meeting and the swearing in was coincidence, said Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman.

The State Department yesterday also designated Sarah Sewall, undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, as the U.S. special coordinator for Tibetan issues.

The meeting yesterday morning was the third between Obama and the Dalai Lama and was announced the night before.

Private Meeting

While the White House released a photograph of the two men, representatives of news organizations weren’t allowed into the meeting. The Dalai Lama, who has talked with reporters outside the White House after previous presidential meetings, left without making any remarks.

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.

The meeting with Obama 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.”

China Protests

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, in a statement, accused the U.S. of “crudely interfering” in China’s 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.”

Carney declined to comment on how far in advance the meeting was scheduled, saying the Dalai Lama was in Washington “on other business.”

The Dalai Lama took part in a Feb. 20 panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington that included Daniel Loeb, the billionaire founder of activist hedge-fund firm Third Point LLC.

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.

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