Obama meets with the Dalai Lama at the White House Map Room, July 16, 2011.
Shrugging off warnings from China, U.S. President Barack Obama met with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on Saturday in a bid to highlight the need for human rights protection in the Beijing-ruled Himalayan territory.
The two Nobel laureates held their pre-noon 45-minute talks in the White House residence’s Map Room-not the Oval Office where the president welcomes heads of state-as U.S. officials attempted to keep the meeting as low key as possible.
Obama hosted the talks despite a warning by Beijing to call off the meeting, which it likened to interference in China’s internal affairs. It warned that bilateral ties could be damaged.
The Dalai Lama said the meeting was “wonderful,” pointing out that Obama showed “genuine concern” for the plight of the Tibetans, who are facing a harsh crackdown by the Chinese authorities.
Obama is the “president of the greatest democratic country, so naturally he is showing concern about basic human values, human rights, religious freedom, these things,” the 76-year-old leader told reporters as he retreated to his hotel after the meeting.
“So naturally he shows genuine concern about the suffering in Tibet and also some other places,” the Dalai Lama said, describing the talks as a “spiritual reunion.”
The White House said the 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.”
Obama also wanted to highlight “his enduring support for dialogue between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese government to resolve differences,” the White House said in a statement before the talks on Friday.
The Dalai Lama’s special envoy, Lodi Gyari, said Obama told the Tibetan spiritual leader that he “respected and supported” his Middle Way approach to resolving the Tibetan issue and gave an assurance that the issue would continue to be raised by the U.S. with the Chinese government at all levels of bilateral talks.
Obama wanted the Dalai Lama to continue the Middle Way approach, under which the Tibetan people will not push for independence from China but seek “meaningful” autonomy within China’s borders.
The U.S. leader also asked the Dalai Lama, who retired in March as political leader of the Tibetan government in exile, to continue to shepherd the dialogue between his envoys and the Chinese authorities in a bid for greater autonomy for Tibet, Gyari said.
“The Dalai Lama agreed and said it is his responsibility to do everything for the interest and benefit of the Tibetan people,” Gyari said.
The Dalai Lama’s envoys have held nine rounds of talks with Beijing but there has been no breakthrough.
Obama last met the Dalai Lama at the same venue in February 2010 in talks which also infuriated Beijing.
Saturday’s meeting was held as the Dalai Lama wrapped up a nearly two-week visit to Washington where he led thousands in a Buddhist meditation ritual.
China accuses the Dalai Lama of being a separatist, a charge denied by the 76-year- old spiritual leader. He says he is only seeking “genuine” autonomy for the Himalayan territory that Beijing has ruled since 1950.
China reacted angrily at the scheduled meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama, suggesting that it was an interference in its internal affairs.
“The issue regarding Tibet concerns China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and we firmly oppose any foreign official to meet with the Dalai Lama in any form,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, state news agency Xinhua reported Friday.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Chinese embassy in the United States have lodged “solemn representation” with the United States over the issue in Beijing and Washington respectively, Hong said.
“We request the U.S. side to honor its serious commitment that recognizes Tibet as part of China and opposes ‘Tibet independence,’ to immediately withdraw the decision of arranging [the] Obama-Dalai Lama meeting, and to avoid interfering in China’s internal affairs and damaging China-U.S. relations,” the spokesman said.
Last week, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, and top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi met the Dalai Lama, raising concerns in Beijing.
The Obama-Dalai Lama talks came as Beijing stepped up its crackdown in Tibet and in Tibetan-majority areas in China.