WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) - President Barack Obama held low-key talks with the Dalai Lama at the White House on Friday after warnings from Beijing that the meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader would “seriously damage” ties with Washington.
The private meeting lasted about an hour, although the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was not seen by White House photographers as he entered or exited the complex.
The White House sidestepped questions about whether it was worried Obama’s meeting - his third with the Dalai Lama - would upset its relationship with China. Analysts said they did not foresee any serious consequences.
“We are committed to a constructive relationship with China in which we work together to solve regional and global problems,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told a regular news briefing, noting that Obama and other U.S. presidents had previously met with the Tibetan leader.
China calls the Dalai Lama, who fled to India after a failed uprising in 1959, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who seeks to use violent methods to establish an independent Tibet. The Dalai Lama maintains he only wants genuine autonomy for Tibet and denies advocating violence.
Human rights groups say China tramples on the rights of Tibetans and enforces its rule using brutal methods. More than 120 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 in protest against China. Most have died.
Obama reaffirmed his support for Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions and human rights for Tibetans, the White House said in a statement.
Obama also said he does not support Tibetan independence from China and the Dalai Lama said he was not seeking it, the White House said.
“We’re concerned about continuing tensions and that the deteriorating human rights situation in Tibetan areas of China,” Carney told reporters.
“We will continue to urge the Chinese government to resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives without pre-conditions as a means to reduce tensions,” he said.
To encourage those talks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday he had named one of his officials, Sarah Sewall, as a Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues.
Sewall was sworn in on Thursday as an undersecretary responsible for human rights issues, a post which traditionally has involved work on Tibetan issues.
It was the third time Obama had met the Dalai Lama, who the White House calls “an internationally respected religious and cultural leader.” Previous meetings were in February 2010 and July 2011.
In what appeared to be a small concession to the Chinese, the visit was held in the White House Map Room, a historically important room but of less significance than the more prestigious Oval Office, where he normally meets visiting leaders.
The Dalai Lama did not speak to the media after the meeting, although he did after the last time he met Obama in 2011.
A statement from the Central Tibetan Administration - the exiled Tibetan government - said it lasted almost an hour.
“This meeting sends a powerful message of hope to Tibetans in Tibet who are undergoing immense suffering,” Lobsang Sangay, the group’s leader, said in a statement.
The meeting came at a sensitive time for Sino-U.S. relations after China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the East China and South China seas.
Obama has embarked on a strategic U.S. political and security rebalancing toward Asia, in what is seen as a reaction to the growing clout of China, and as part of this strategy, he plans a week-long visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines in late April.
Friday’s meeting, announced with little fanfare the evening before it took place, prompted a stern rebuke from Beijing.
“The United States’ arrangement for its leader to meet the Dalai would be a gross interference in China’s internal affairs and is a serious violation of the norms of international relations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement ahead of the meeting.
“It will seriously damage Sino-U.S. relations,” she said, urging the White House to cancel the meeting.
“(If) the U.S. president wishes to meet any person, it’s his own affair, but he cannot meet the Dalai,” she said. “The Dalai is definitely not a pure religious figure. He is using the cloak of religion to engage in long-term activities to separate China. He is a political exile.”
Previous meetings between Obama and the Dalai Lama drew similar criticism from China, but did not have serious repercussions.
Jonathan Pollack, an analyst with the Brookings Institution think tank, said it was extremely unlikely that China would takes steps such as canceling high-level meetings over the Dalai Lama’s visit, given there was so much at stake in U.S.-China relations.
“That would be, as the old Chinese proverb goes, lifting up a stone to drop it on your own feet,” he said.
“Obviously the Chinese are predictably and ritualistically agitated, but their words, compared to what they have said in the past, are, if anything, a little less sharp.”
Diplomats in Beijing have told Reuters Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to meet at a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands next month.
The choreography of Friday’s meeting - and the Chinese reaction - followed predictable patterns, said Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“They’ve arranged it to be held in the same fashion, roughly, that it’s been held most times the Dalai Lama has come,” he said. “There’s no escalation.”
The Dalai Lama was not seen by the White House press corps and the White House did not give photographers access to the meeting.
Carney declined to say whether this restriction was made as a concession to China.
“We don’t have photographers in every meeting the president has,” he told reporters.
The White House released its own photograph of the two leaders after the meeting. It showed the Dalai Lama gesturing as he spoke to Obama.
The Dalai Lama is scheduled to stay in the United States for a speaking tour lasting another two weeks. He is due back in Washington on March 7 after stops in California and Minnesota.
Additional reporting by Steve Holland and David Brunnstrom in Washington and Natalie Thomas and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, Chris Reese and Sandra Maler