February 2, 2010 / 3:26 AM / 10 years ago

China warns Obama not to meet Dalai Lama

BEIJING (Reuters) - China said on Tuesday that a possible meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama would hurt trust between the two countries, already at odds over Washington’s arms sales to Taiwan.

Zhu Weiqun, a Vice Minister of the United Front Work Department of China’s ruling Communist Party, told a news conference that his government would vehemently oppose any meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader who Beijing deems a dangerous separatist.

“If that comes to pass, then China will be strongly opposed as always,” Zhu, who’s department steers Party policy over religious and ethnic issues, said of the possible meeting.

A meeting “would be totally at odds with international accepted practices and would seriously undermine the political basis of Sino-U.S. relations,” added Zhu.

There has been widespread speculation that Obama will meet the Dalai Lama when the Tibetan Buddhist monk visits the United States in coming months. The White House has not publicly confirmed any such meeting.

But even a brief symbolic encounter between the U.S. leader and the Dalai Lama would stoke ire in Beijing, which has recently threatened sanctions against U.S. companies over proposals to sell $6.4 billion of weapons to Taiwan, the disputed island that China treats as an illegitimate breakaway province.

The United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, recognizing “one China.” But it remains Taiwan’s biggest backer and is obliged by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to help in the island’s defense.

The United States and China, respectively the world’s biggest and third biggest economies, have also recently been at odds over trade and currency policies and control of the Internet.

“If the U.S. leader chooses this time to meet the Dalai Lama, that would damage trust and cooperation between our two countries, and how would that help the United States surmount the current economic crisis?” said Zhu.

China has becoming increasingly assertive in opposing meetings between the Dalai Lama and foreign leaders, especially after violent unrest spread across Tibetan areas in March 2008. Previous U.S. Presidents have met him.

The Dalai Lama has said he wants a high level of genuine autonomy for his homeland, which he fled in 1959. China says that his demands amount to pressing for outright independence.

China recently hosted talks with envoys of the Dalai Lama, but those talks achieved little.

Writing by Chris Buckley; Editing by Alex Richardson

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