Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, during an October 2013 visit to Australia. He backs an approach of neither assimilation nor independence for Tibetans in China, according to U.S. officials.Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images
President Barack Obama met with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on Friday at the White House, and reiterated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet's rights. But the administration also used a post-meeting statement to reiterate that the president does not support Tibetan independence.
Obama said the U.S. position is that Tibet is part of the People's Republic of China — though he encouraged China to protect the human rights of Tibetans.
The Dalai Lama, for his part, said he is not seeking independence, but hopes his representatives and the Chinese government will resume talks.
The exiled leader, who is in the U.S. for a speaking tour, is famed for his peaceful struggle for greater Tibetan autonomy, something that is opposed by China. The last time he met with Obama, in 2011, China blasted the meeting and said it damaged China-U.S. ties. Beijing was similarly upset when the two leaders met in 2010.
During the White House meeting, Obama commended the Dalai Lama's commitment to peace and nonviolence and added that dialogue between Tibet and China would be positive for both sides.
Early on Friday, China urged the United States to scrap plans for the meeting later in the day, warning that the planned session would "seriously damage" ties between the countries.
In the past, Chinese authorities denounced the Dalai Lama as a separatist and blamed him for instigating Tibetans' self-immolations in China.
Obama hosted the Dalai Lama, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, at a private morning meeting in the Map Room of the White House. Traditionally, when Obama meets with presidents and prime ministers, he hosts them in the Oval Office and allows reporters to witness a short portion of the meeting. The decision to hold the meeting elsewhere and to close the meeting to reporters could signal an attempt to avoid the appearance of a formal meeting between two heads of state.
Seeking to stave off controversy, the White House reiterated late Thursday that the U.S. recognizes Tibet as part of China and doesn't support Tibetan independence. At the same time, officials said they were concerned about tensions and deteriorating human rights in Tibetan areas, urging Beijing to resume talks with the Dalai Lama or his followers without conditions.
"The United States supports the Dalai Lama's 'middle way' approach of neither assimilation nor independence for Tibetans in China," said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House's National Security Council.
Relations between the U.S. and China are already on edge over Beijing's increasingly aggressive steps to assert itself in the region in territorial disputes with its smaller neighbors. China's emergence as a leading global economic and military power has strained ties with Washington, and the two have clashed over cybertheft and human rights.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement on its website that Obama's planned meeting with the Dalai Lama is a "gross interference" in China's internal affairs.
The Dalai Lama is a frequent visitor in the U.S. During his current three-week visit, he also has public speaking events in California and Minnesota. On Thursday he delivered a message of compassion and care for humanity while addressing free market mavens at a right-leaning Washington think tank.
Hours before the scheduled meeting, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno met with his Chinese counterpart, Lt. Gen. Wang Ning, at the Defense Ministry in Beijing before Odierno heads north on Saturday to tour the headquarters of China's Shenyang Military Region.
He said that that both countries had "incredibly professional armies" that should work more closely together, in an effort to improve a relationship that has progressed by fits and starts over the past decade.
Wang said China "sincerely hoped" for more substantial relations with the U.S. military through practical cooperation.
Both sides said they looked forward to discussing international and regional security matters, a nod to bitter disputes between China and two U.S. allies — Japan and the Philippines — over territorial claims in the East and South China seas that have raised alarms over the possibility of armed conflict.
Despite tensions between the two sides, the militaries have pushed ahead with limited steps to reduce longstanding mistrust between them. They have held simulations aimed at cooperating in humanitarian relief operations, and China's navy later this year is to take part in multinational naval exercises off Hawaii.