U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday offered his "strong support" for the protection of Tibetans' human rights in China as he defied protests from Beijing to meet the Dalai Lama.
With China warning that the meeting would derail ties between the world's two largest economies, Obama took care to avoid any trappings of an official visit, receiving the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader in the Map Room of the White House residence and not the Oval Office where he usually talks to dignitaries.
The Dalai Lama, usually chatty and playful with foreign audiences, was nowhere to be seen at the White House, which did not allow in reporters.
The administration instead released an official photograph of the robed Buddhist monk gesticulating with one hand and clutching prayer beads in the other as he spoke to a studious-looking Obama over glasses of water.
In Beijing, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui summoned the U.S. charge d'affaires, Daniel Kritenbrink, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
"China expresses strong indignation and firm opposition," Zhang was quoted as saying.
- Obama's 'strong support' -
The White House in a statement said that Obama expressed "his strong support for the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People's Republic of China."
The statement said that Obama backed the Dalai Lama, who fled his homeland for India in 1959, in his "Middle Way" path of peacefully advocating greater autonomy for Tibetans.
Obama called for China to resume talks with the Dalai Lama's envoys, which broke down in 2010 after making no headway.
The statement rejected Beijing's charges that the Dalai Lama had a separatist agenda and that his meeting was part of a plot to split China.
In a bid to follow up on Obama's concerns, Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday tapped human rights official Sarah Sewall to fill the position of US coordinator on Tibet policy.
China calls the Dalai Lama a "wolf in sheep's clothing."
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying decried the meeting as "a gross interference in China's internal affairs" which would "seriously impair China-US relations."
- Growing human rights concerns -
Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan prime minister-in-exile, dismissed Beijing's criticism, saying that the Dalai Lama has clearly stated he does not have an "anti-China" agenda and is not seeking independence.
Sangay hailed Obama for holding his third meeting as president with the Dalai Lama. The two Nobel peace laureates last met in 2011.
"It sends a very powerful message to Tibetans inside Tibet because it gives them a sense of hope that their voices are heard, even by the most powerful person in the world," Sangay told AFP.
China has for decades voiced anger at foreign dignitaries' meetings with the Dalai Lama, who has developed a global following and addresses standing-room-only crowds across the Western world and India. He flew out later Friday to San Francisco to deliver lectures.
Human rights groups have voiced growing concern since China launched a crackdown on Tibetan demonstrations in 2008. After the unrest, more than 120 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in suicide protests against what they see as political oppression, controls on their religion and discrimination by China's Han majority.
The visit comes on the heels of a trip to Beijing by Kerry, but well ahead of an Asia-Pacific summit there in November that Obama is expected to attend -- meaning that China could not retaliate by canceling a high-profile visit.
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 neighbors.
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.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that the US-China relationship was "very broad" and that the two countries were working together on a number of issues, including Iran and North Korea.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]