WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama welcomed the Dalai Lama to the White House on Friday, provoking a rebuke from the Chinese government, which warned that the meeting would severely damage relations between Washington and Beijing.
But this time, in contrast to previous meetings, the White House seemed unruffled by the diplomatic repercussions of the visit by the Tibetan spiritual leader, which comes as the United States is taking a firmer line with China on a range of territorial disputes with its neighbors.
Obama, the White House said in a statement, reiterated in the meeting his support for the rights and religious liberties of Tibetans in China. He called on the Chinese government to resume a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India.
The 45-minute meeting was held in the Map Room, not the Oval Office — a modest concession to the Chinese, who view the Dalai Lama as an anti-China separatist. But that did not prevent the Chinese Foreign Ministry from demanding that Obama cancel the meeting altogether.
The ministry's spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said it would "grossly interfere in the internal affairs of China, seriously violate norms governing international relations, and severely impair China-U.S. relations."
China used similar language when Obama met with the Dalai Lama in 2010 and 2011. The White House delayed the first meeting from 2009 to avoid angering the Chinese a month before the president's inaugural trip to Beijing, drawing criticism from human rights activists and others for appeasing the Chinese.
This time, however, the calendar was not an obstacle. Obama does not plan to visit China until November, by which time "this meeting should be well in the rearview mirror," said Jeffrey Bader, a former senior China adviser in the National Security Council who is now with the Brookings Institution.
If anything, Obama's itinerary constitutes a further challenge to China. In April, he will visit four Asian countries — Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea — that all have territorial disputes with China.
None of this augurs a change in U.S. policy toward Tibet itself. Obama reaffirmed that the United States opposes Tibetan independence and views Tibet as part of China. The Dalai Lama repeated that he has forsworn any demand for independence.
Obama endorsed the Dalai Lama's Middle Way approach, which calls for neither assimilation nor independence for Tibetans in China. Obama also raised the issue of self-immolation by protesting Buddhist monks, a practice that U.S. officials said they were pleased the Dalai Lama had begun to address publicly after a long silence.