WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush hosted the Dalai Lama on Tuesday despite China's warning that U.S. plans to honor the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader could damage relations between Beijing and Washington.
The White House talks were held on the eve of a congressional award ceremony for the Dalai Lama, but the Bush administration took pains to keep the encounter with the president low-key in a bid to placate China.
"We in no way want to stir the pot and make China feel that we are poking a stick in their eye -- to a country that we have ... a good relationship with on a variety of issues," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
Beijing has bitterly denounced plans for the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since staging a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, to receive the Congressional Gold Medal on Wednesday.
Bush will attend the ceremony on Capitol Hill, the first time a U.S. president will appear in public with the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists and a Nobel Peace laureate whom China regards as a separatist and a traitor.
"We are furious," Tibet's Communist Party boss, Zhang Qingli, told reporters in China. "If the Dalai Lama can receive such an award, there must be no justice or good people in the world."
The White House denied Bush's private meeting with the Dalai Lama, his fourth since taking office, was meddling in China's internal affairs. But Perino said: "We understand that the Chinese have very strong feelings about this."
Returning to his Washington hotel, a smiling Dalai Lama told journalists and a small group of cheering followers that his meeting with Bush had been "like a reunion of one family."
"Naturally he's showing his concern about Tibet and he inquired about the situation there," the Dalai Lama said.
Asked about China's anger over his U.S. visit, he waved his hands dismissively and said: "That always happens."
PLAYING DOWN THE SYMBOLISM
Trying to play down the symbolism of the talks, Bush met the Dalai Lama in the White House residence instead of the Oval Office where he normally welcomes visiting world leaders.
White House staff, who had refused to say when the meeting would take place, afterward said it lasted half an hour but gave no further details. Reporters were not allowed to glimpse the two together and no photographs were released.
Asked why Bush was going ahead with the talks, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said: "He made it clear in his communications with the Chinese ... that when the Dalai Lama was in town for the congressional ceremony that they would meet. So there's no reason not to."
China pulled out of a meeting this week at which world powers were to discuss Iran, in apparent protest at Congress's plan to honor the Dalai Lama with its highest civilian award.
China had also canceled an annual human rights dialogue with Germany to show displeasure over Chancellor Angela Merkel's September meeting with the Dalai Lama.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said China had expressed "resolute opposition" to the U.S. award.
"China has solemnly demanded the United States cancel the above-mentioned and extremely wrongful arrangement," Yang said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said if the decision to honor the Dalai Lama was not reversed it would have an "extremely serious impact" on bilateral relations.
China pulled out of the meeting on Iran for "technical reasons," he told a news conference.
China's rhetoric against the Dalai Lama has been increasing in line with his accolades abroad, even though the government and his envoys are engaged in a tentative dialogue process.
The Dalai Lama, 72, has said he supports a "middle way" policy that advocates autonomy for Tibet within China. But Qiangba Puncog, Tibet's governor, said China believed he still supported independence and that separatist activities in the region were increasing.