WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama will meet Saturday with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, defying warnings from China after calls built at home to welcome the monk, officials said.
The meeting was announced late Friday after a long silence from the Obama administration about whether the president would see the Dalai Lama, who was to leave Saturday after nearly two weeks in Washington leading a Buddhist rite.
“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.
In line with his meeting last year with the Dalai Lama, Obama will not permit reporters and will greet the spiritual leader inside the White House residence’s Map Room — not the Oval Office where he welcomes heads of state.
The Dalai Lama, who enjoys wide popularity in the United States, has lived in exile since 1959. He 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 International Campaign for Tibet, which works closely with the Dalai Lama, hailed the White House’s announcement of a meeting and said that Tibetans were facing a “pervasive security crackdown” from China.
The meeting “gives hope to those who take great risks in oppressive circumstances to come together, share opinions and demand justice and accountability from their governments,” it said in a statement.
US lawmakers including House Speaker John Boehner welcomed the Dalai Lama to the Capitol on July 7 and had started to criticize 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 who was part of the Capitol meeting, was 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 by Chinese President Hu Jintao.
“This should have been announced much earlier,” Smith said, adding that pressure from Capitol Hill likely influenced the president’s decision.
The Dalai Lama’s visit to Washington came amid a series 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 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.”
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