Dalai Lama in US for Talks as China Fumes

WASHINGTON

Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama opened a visit on Wednesday (Thursday, Bali time) to the United States to meet President Barack Obama, infuriating China as it tries to sideline the revered monk.

The Dalai Lama, who has tried to use foreign trips to throw a spotlight on China’s treatment of his homeland, flew into Washington and headed to a hotel to greet fellow Tibetans for their Losar new year.

The 74-year-old will head Thursday to the White House for a long-awaited meeting with Obama. Describing the encounter as private, the White House said Obama will receive him in the Map Room – not the more official Oval Office.

Beijing has opposed any meeting with the Dalai Lama, demanding that the United States reverse its “wrong decision” to “avoid any more damage to Sino-US relations.”

The Obama administration not only refused to call off the meeting, but announced that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would also see the Dalai Lama on Thursday at the State Department.

“The Dalai Lama is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, internationally revered religious and cultural leader and the secretary will meet him in this capacity as recent secretaries of state have done,” her spokesman Mark Toner said.

He acknowledged that China was upset by the Dalai Lama’s trip but said that the United States supported a cooperative relationship with the rising Asian power.

“It’s a complex relationship,” he told reporters. “There’s areas where we agree on; there’s areas where we disagree on. And, you know, we’re going to continue to pursue that relationship vigorously.”

Advisers to the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since 1959, brushed aside China’s criticism as routine and said the White House meeting sent a comforting message to those living in Tibet.

“They will feel encouraged that the president of the United States, a global superpower, is meeting with His Holiness,” the Dalai Lama’s secretary Chhime Chhoekyapa said. “It means the world has not forgotten them.”

The Dalai Lama enjoys a wide following in the United States and every sitting US president has met with the Nobel Peace laureate since George H. W. Bush in 1991.

Fending off domestic criticism, Obama did not meet with the Dalai Lama when he was in Washington last year in an apparent bid to set relations off on a good foot with China.

But Obama has since the start of the year gone ahead with decisions opposed by Beijing – including approving a US$6.4-billion arms package to Taiwan, which China regards as its territory awaiting reunification.

Leonard Leo, chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government advisory board, said he hoped that Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama was “not just checking a political box.”

Instead, Obama should seek advice on “how to think creatively” on the thorny issue of Tibet.

“Beijing’s objections to Obama meeting the Dalai Lama should not deter the administration from trying to bridge China’s plans to improve the living standards of Tibetans and Tibetan demands for religious freedom and protection of their unique culture and language,” Leo said.

The Dalai Lama says he accepts Chinese rule over his homeland, where Beijing sent troops in 1950. But China has branded him a “wolf in monk’s clothes” and accuses him of advocating separatism.

China in January held talks with the Dalai Lama’s envoys, the first between the two sides since November 2008.

Many observers believe the Chinese are simply stringing the Tibetan exiles along until the Dalai Lama dies, on the assumption that the Tibetan movement will wither without him.

“The Dalai Lama and the people around him have refused to realize this, and that the talks have a strategic value for China,” said Elliot Sperling, an expert on Tibet at Indiana University.

Sperling said the Dalai Lama may be better off to accept that a solution is unlikely in his lifetime rather than placing hope in the talks.

“They’re useful for thwarting criticisms as to why the Chinese government isn’t talking to the Dalai Lama,” Sperling said.

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