BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - China urged the United States on Friday to scrap plans for President Barack Obama to meet the Dalai Lama next week, the latest source of friction in already strained Sino-U.S. relations.
The White House had said on Thursday that Obama would meet the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader on February 18, despite China’s repeated warnings that such talks would hurt ties.
“China firmly opposes the Dalai Lama visiting the United States and U.S. leaders’ contacting with him,” a report from the official Xinhua news agency cited foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu as saying.
Brushing aside China’s objections again, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters later on Friday: “The meeting will take place as planned next Thursday.
Tensions with Washington have arisen over issues from trade to currencies to the U.S. plan to sell $6.4 billion of weapons to Taiwan, the island that China treats as an illegitimate breakaway province.
China vowed last week to impose unspecified sanctions against U.S. companies selling arms to Taiwan and curtail military-to-military contacts.
Senior Chinese military officers have proposed that their country boost defense spending and possibly sell some U.S. bonds to punish Washington for its latest round of proposed arms sales to Taiwan.
Despite that, U.S. officials said on Thursday that Beijing had cleared a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, to visit Hong Kong next week, an apparent concession from China.
Against that backdrop, the long-planned meeting with Dalai Lama has further stoked Beijing’s ire. It regards the spiritual leader as a dangerous separatist responsible for fomenting unrest in Tibet.
“We urge the U.S. side to fully understand the high sensitivity of Tibet-related issues, honor its commitment to recognizing Tibet as part of China and opposing ‘Tibet independence’,” Ma said.
In setting the date for the talks, Gibbs said earlier: “The Dalai Lama is an internationally respected religious leader and spokesman for Tibetan rights, and the president looks forward to an engaging and constructive dialogue.”
Mindful of Chinese sensitivities, Obama had held off meeting the Dalai Lama until after the president first saw Chinese leaders during a trip to Asia in November.
Strains over the Dalai Lama and other issues have raised worries that China might retaliate by obstructing U.S. efforts in other areas, such as imposing tougher sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.
But Gibbs insisted the relationship between the United States and China — the world’s largest and third-biggest economies — is “mature enough” to find common ground on issues of mutual interest despite disagreements on other topics.
He said Obama, for example, has not been shy about talking to the Chinese about U.S. concerns over their currency, which Washington sees as undervalued, and Internet freedom.
“We know that two countries aren’t going to agree on everything,” Gibbs said.
Adding to tensions, Obama vowed last week to address currency problems with Beijing and to “get much tougher” with it on trade to ensure U.S. goods do not face a competitive disadvantage.
China is the single biggest holder of U.S. Treasuries, owning at least $776.4 billion of U.S. government debt at the end of June 2009, according to statistics from Washington.
Beijing, which has become increasingly vocal in opposing contacts between foreign leaders and the Dalai Lama, has tried to turn up the heat on Obama over his planned meeting.
Zhu Weiqun, a vice minister of the United Front Work Department of China’s ruling Communist Party, said last week that such a meeting “would damage trust and cooperation between our two countries, and how would that help the United States surmount the current economic crisis?”
Previous U.S. presidents, including Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, have met the Dalai Lama, drawing angry words from Beijing but no substantive reprisals.
The Dalai Lama has said he wants a high level of genuine autonomy for his homeland, which he fled in 1959. China says his demands amount to calling for outright independence.
China recently hosted talks with envoys of the Dalai Lama but they achieved little. The United States says it accepts Tibet is a part of China but wants Beijing to sit down with the Dalai Lama to address differences over the region’s future.
Additional reporting by Jim Wolf in Washington and James Pomfret in Hong Kong; Editing by Ken Wills, Alex Richardson and Jackie Frank