Obama decides to meet Dalai Lama, upsetting China

AFP , Saturday 16 Jul 2011

President Obama will meet the Dalai Lama at the White House, following pressure from US politicians

US President Barack Obama will welcome the Dalai Lama on Saturday and pledge support for human rights in Tibet, officials said, angering China after appeals mounted at home for a meeting.

The White House made the announcement late Friday after a long silence on whether Obama would meet the Dalai Lama, who was to leave Saturday after an 11-day visit to Washington to lead thousands in a Buddhist meditation ritual.

"This meeting underscores the president's strong support for the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans," a White House statement said.

"The president will highlight his enduring support for dialogue between the Dalai Lama's representatives and the Chinese government to resolve differences," it said.

China lodged an official protest. The foreign ministry said it urged the United States to "immediately revoke its decision" and to "honour its serious commitment that recognises Tibet as part of China."

"We are firmly opposed to any foreign politician meeting the Dalai Lama in any form whatsoever," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, warning that the meeting "could harm US-Chinese relations."

In line with Obama's last meeting with the Dalai Lama in February 2010, the White House is trying to make the visit as low-key as possible. Obama will receive the Dalai Lama in the Map Room -- not the Oval Office where he welcomes heads of state -- and will not allow in reporters.

The Dalai Lama, who enjoys wide popularity in the United States, has lived in exile since 1959. The Nobel Peace Prize winner, a declared pacifist, says he is peacefully seeking rights for Tibetans and accepts Chinese rule.

But Beijing insists that he is a "splittist" bent on dividing China and regularly protests his meetings overseas. The Chinese foreign ministry earlier warned the United States that it was "firmly opposed" to the Dalai Lama's trip.

US lawmakers welcomed the 76-year-old monk to the Capitol on July 7 and several of them had criticised Obama, believing he had decided not to meet the Dalai Lama in deference to pressure from China.

Representative Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, remained critical after the White House announcement, saying that a Saturday meeting was designed for minimum media exposure.

"This shows that it is an afterthought at best but maybe it is worse than that and it was premeditated to announce it at this late hour," Smith told AFP.

He contrasted the White House's low-key announcement with the weeks of preparation for a state visit in January by Chinese President Hu Jintao, whom he described as one of the world's biggest violators of human rights.

"This should have been announced much earlier," Smith said of the meeting with the Dalai Lama, adding that pressure from Capitol Hill likely influenced the president's decision.

Smith and other lawmakers said that Obama was disrespectful to the Dalai Lama during his last visit to the White House by obliging the monk to use a back entrance next to garbage cans. The Dalai Lama found his way to waiting reporters and even engaged in a playful snowball fight.

The Dalai Lama's latest visit to Washington had been known months in advance. He is leading a Kalachakra -- a tantric ritual last held more than five years ago in India -- at the Verizon Center sports arena.

The trip comes in between a number of US interactions with China that the Obama administration believes are critical for future relations between the world's two largest economies.

Admiral Mike Mullen visited China this week, the first trip there by the top US military officer in four years. US policymakers are eager to step up defense dialogue, fearing miscalculations as China rapidly expands its military.

Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to travel next month to China for talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, who is widely expected to become president next year. Clinton will also hold talks in China on July 25.

China's top military officer, General Chen Bingde, specifically criticized US meetings with the Dalai Lama during an appearance with Mullen, saying: "There are people in America who intentionally make trouble for the development of relations between the two nations."

Four consecutive sitting presidents have met the Dalai Lama. But only George W. Bush appeared in an open setting next to the monk when he presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.

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