Obama meets Dalai Lama despite China's protest

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President Barack Obama welcomed Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to the White House on Friday, defying China, which said the meeting would "seriously impair" ties between the two countries.

The encounter took place in the Map Room on the ground floor of the president's residence and not the Oval Office, which Mr Obama usually uses to meet foreign leaders and visiting dignitaries.

"The president is currently meeting w/His Holiness the @DalaiLama in his capacity as an internationally respected religious & cultural leader," the US National Security Council said on Twitter.

There were no sightings of the Dalai Lama arriving at the White House and in a sign of its diplomatic sensitivity, the Obama administration ruled that the meeting would be closed to the press.

Mr Obama last met the Dalai Lama, a fellow Nobel peace laureate, at the White House in 2011 in talks that triggered an angry response from Beijing, which said the encounter had harmed ties between the world's two largest economies.

China, which calls the Dalai Lama a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and accuses him of seeking independence for Tibet, was quick to react to Thursday's announcement of a meeting.

"China is firmly opposed to this," foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said in a statement.

"We urge the US side to treat China's concern in a serious way and immediately cancel the planned meeting."

Ms Hua called the Dalai Lama a "political exile who has long been engaged in anti-China separatist activities under the cloak of religion."

On Thursday, National Security Council spokesman Caitlin Hayden underlined that the United States supported the Dalai Lama's approach but recognised Tibet to be "a part of the People's Republic of China".

"We do not support Tibetan independence," Ms Hayden said.

"The United States strongly supports human rights and religious freedom in China. We are concerned about continuing tensions and the deteriorating human rights situation in Tibetan areas of China."

Ms Hayden said the administration would renew calls for the Chinese government to resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives, without preconditions.

China has for decades opposed foreign dignitaries meeting the revered Buddhist leader, who fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.

In Beijing, Ms Hua said that China had "already lodged solemn representations" with the United States.

"The US leader's meeting with the Dalai is a gross interference in China's internal affairs, a severe violation of codes of international relations and will seriously impair China-US relations," she said.

The Dalai Lama says he advocates greater autonomy for Tibetans rather than independence.

But tensions between Tibetans and the Chinese authorities run high.

More than 120 Tibetans have set themselves on fire and committed suicide in recent years to protest against what they see as oppression by China's government and controls on their right to exercise their religion.

"The Dalai Lama is essentially a political fugitive whose group instigates separatist activities including self-immolations," the state-run Xinhua news agency said in a commentary.

The visit comes on the heels of a trip to Beijing by US Secretary of State John Kerry, but well ahead of an Asia-Pacific summit there in November that Mr Obama is expected to attend - meaning that China could not retaliate by canceling a high-profile visit.

Mr Obama is due in Asia in April, but has no stop in China planned - though the visit will be dominated by questions over Beijing's tense relations with its neighbours.

Mr Todd Stein, Washington-based director of government relations for the International Campaign for Tibet, hailed Mr Obama's meeting as another sign of US support for preservation of the Himalayan region's culture.

"President Obama's hosting of the Dalai Lama is a continued expression of support for his work, his message and his cause," Mr Stein said.

Mr Obama came under domestic criticism in 2009 when he did not see the Dalai Lama during a visit to Washington, as the new president looked to start on the right foot with China.

But the optimism of the early days of the Obama presidency has dimmed, with the United States pressing China on a range of concerns including its territorial disputes with US allies Japan and the Philippines and Beijing's alleged cyber espionage campaign.

In an interview with Time Magazine before his meeting, the Dalai Lama praised Chinese President Xi Jinping for "fearlessly" fighting corruption.

But he condemned censorship and said that China's judicial system needed to be improved to international standards.