Obama meets Dalai Lama to China anger

by Shaun Tandon, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Feb 18 2010 05:40 PM | Updated as of Feb 20 2010 04:20 PM

WASHINGTON DC, United States (UPDATE) - US President Barack Obama on Thursday held a long-awaited meeting with Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, brushing aside Chinese demands to snub the exiled monk.

Supporters chanted and waved Tibetan and US flags in snowy Lafayette Square across from the White House to welcome the Dalai Lama, who has now met every sitting US president since George H. W. Bush in 1991.

In a delicate arrangement to avoid inflaming ties with Beijing, Obama gave his fellow Nobel Peace Prize recipient little of the ceremonial trappings of a visit to the White House.

No cameras were allowed as the Dalai Lama opened the talks with Obama in the executive mansion's Map Room -- not the Oval Office, the seat of presidential power.

But China opposes any foreign contact with the 74-year-old Buddhist leader, who fled his Chinese-ruled homeland in 1959 for India and has since built an enthusiastic global following for his spiritual teachings.

Obama avoided the Dalai Lama when the Tibetan leader was in Washington last year but this time rebuffed Chinese appeals.

The administration said Obama was receiving the Dalai Lama in his capacity as a spiritual leader, although aides said they also wanted to sound him out on the painstakingly slow dialogue between his envoys and Beijing.

"The Dalai Lama is an internationally respected religious leader. He's a spokesman for Tibetan rights," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said when he announced the meeting's date.

"The president looks forward to an engaging and constructive meeting," Gibbs said.

The Dalai Lama will later hold a separate closed-door meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Both Obama and Clinton saw the Tibetan leader when they were senators but never before in their current roles.

The Obama administration has said it is committed to a constructive relationship with China on a range of issues from reviving the wobbly global economy to battling climate change.

But the administration has gone ahead since the start of the year with several decisions that China had warned against, including approving 6.4 billion dollars in weapons for Taiwan. Beijing claims the self-ruling island.

China, whose economy and international clout have been growing, has warned that Obama was damaging relations.

"China resolutely opposes the visit by the Dalai Lama to the United States, and resolutely opposes US leaders having contact with the Dalai Lama," foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said.

But some US-based analysts believe China's protests may be geared more for domestic consumption and that its leaders, like Obama, see the benefits of cooperation between the world's largest developed and developing nations.

Just hours before the meeting with the Dalai Lama, the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier arrived for a visit in Hong Kong despite China's vows to cut off military ties with the United States due to the Taiwan arms deal.

China in January resumed talks with envoys of the Dalai Lama, the first such dialogue since November 2008.

The talks have yielded no visible progress, leading some Tibetan exiles to fear that China is simply stringing them along until the Dalai Lama dies in hopes that the Tibetan cause would wither away without him.

Lodi Gyari, the Tibetan leader's lead negotiator in the talks, said that the Dalai Lama hoped to speak to Obama both about global concerns and events in Tibet.

"His Holiness will be asking the president to help find a solution in resolving the Tibet issue that would be mutually beneficial to the Tibetan and Chinese people," Gyari said.