Despite China’s objections President Obama met the Dalai Lama Wednesday in a private, no-press, White House meeting behind closed doors. As in the previous three meetings, the 80-year-old Tibetan leader’s importance as a global spiritual figure was acknowledged but he was not accorded a head-of-state status to prevent China from being provoked. The meeting was held in the Maple room while the spiritual leader did not appear to enter the White House through the usual West Wing entrance.
The White House said the Dalai Lama expressed his condolences for the shooting attack in Orlando Sunday, while Obama commended the Dalai Lama for his efforts to promote compassion, empathy, and respect for others. The two also talked about climate change, an issue close to the hearts of both leaders.
The meeting came at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and China over Beijing’s aggressive territorial claims in East Asia.
In anticipation of the meeting, China had already made its objection clear. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang had said, “If the United States plans this meeting, it will send the wrong signal to Tibet independence and separatist forces and harm China-US mutual trust and cooperation.”
“The Chinese side reiterates that Tibetan affairs fall within China’s domestic affairs, and no foreign country has the right to interfere,” Kang said Wednesday.
He said the Dalai Lama ‘is not a pure religious figure, but a political exile who has long been engaged in anti-China separatist plots under the cloak of religion’.
The Dalai Lama had fled to India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. The Buddhist leader has pushed for more Tibetan autonomy but China accuses him of encouraging outright independence. It considers the Dalai Lama a dangerous separatist and accuses him of using ‘spiritual terrorism’ to seek independence for Tibet.
Lu Kang said the meeting would encourage ‘separatist forces’. He urged Washington to abide by its promises to recognize that Tibet is a part of China and stop any show of support for Tibet independence.
The meeting, however, did take place and expectedly, drew immediate protests from China, which sees the meeting as a threat to the one-China policy that’s been a tenet of U.S. foreign policy for 44 years.
China’s official news agency, Xinhua, accused Washington of breaking its promise not to support Tibet’s independence by going ahead with the meeting. It said that had ‘seriously jeopardized China-US relations, and deeply hurt the Chinese people’s feelings’.
“Supporting Tibet’s independence is a clear interference in China’s internal affairs and is in gross violation of the norms of international relations. Playing the ‘Tibet card’ shows the US government is overdrawing its political credit and international prestige.”
China was also outraged when Obama had last met the Dalai Lama at the White House in 2014 and had vow strong support for Tibetans’ human rights.
Underplaying the meeting, the White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that Mr. Obama had “encouraged meaningful and direct dialogue between the Dalai Lama and his representatives with Chinese authorities to lower tensions and resolve differences.”
He said, “I would just reiterate once again that the U.S. position, as it relates to Tibet has not changed. Tibet, per U.S. policy, is considered part of the People’s Republic of China. And the United States has not articulated our support for Tibetan independence.
Both the Dalai Lama and President Obama value the importance of a constructive and productive relationship between the United States and China.
All of those were policy positions of the United States before the meeting occurred. Our policy hasn’t changed after the meeting.”
Earnest also characterized them meet as a ‘personal’ meeting instead of an official one.
Mr. Obama has previously described the Tibetan Buddhist leader as a ‘good friend’. “The president has spoken publicly in the past about his warm, personal feelings for the Dalai Lama,” Earnest said Wednesday. “The president has articulated his appreciation for the Dalai Lama’s teachings, and believes in preserving Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions.”
In an interview with Fox News later on Wednesday, the Dalai Lama said he and Obama talked about the current situation in Tibet.
He denied he was seeking independence and said that it was in Tibet’s interests to remain part of China, “provided we should have full right for preservation of our own culture, our rich Buddhist knowledge, knowledge of Buddhist philosophy, these things.”
The Dalai Lama also noted in the interview that Chinese President Xi Jinping had said Buddhism was an important part of Chinese culture.
“So this is something new, for a leader of a Communist party, you see, mentioning some positive things about Buddhism, wonderful.”
“So … Chinese people, including leaders, I think are getting some new experiences, so things will change,” he said.