Politics & Government

Obama's Dalai Lama meeting won't include joint appearance

The Dalai Lama in 2004.
The Dalai Lama in 2004. Carl Juste / Miami Herald / MCT

WASHINGTON — Months after he postponed their first meeting in a gesture to China, President Barack Obama will sit down Thursday at the White House with the Dalai Lama — two Nobel Peace Prize winners with a mutual interest in coaxing changes from the Chinese and keeping peace in the region.

The men will meet privately in the Map Room and an official photo will be released, said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, but the leaders will not make a public appearance or jointly answer questions.

For the Dalai Lama, the meeting nevertheless adds pressure on China to grant Tibet greater autonomy. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Tibet's failed uprising against Chinese rule and the Buddhist spiritual leader's exile to India.

The Dalai Lama, who advocates non-violence, isn't seeking Tibet's independence but wants the Chinese to agree to negotiate what he calls a "middle way" with more autonomy. The White House meeting also could prompt leaders of other nations to meet with the Dalai Lama to that end.

For Obama, the meeting is a chance to reassure both human rights advocates and foreign policy hawks that he'll stand up to the Chinese when need be, and that the U.S. still is committed to protecting freedoms for ethnic and religious minorities.

Obama drew criticism from both camps last year when he declined to meet with the Dalai Lama because Obama was preparing for an official visit to China, which took place in November. President George W. Bush, in contrast, met with the Dalai Lama and was publicly photographed with him when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.

Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that Obama's meeting will be "an important statement of our own priorities and values. Whether it will lead to any changes in Beijing's willingness to negotiate more seriously with the Dalai Lama's representatives, that's a work in progress."

The Chinese government doesn't want Obama to meet with the Dalai Lama, but there's no indication that the meeting will hurt relations significantly between the two world powers, which have been strained recently by other flashpoints.

China is angry over the U.S. agreement to sell more than $6 billion in weapons to Taiwan. Meanwhile, the U.S. is angry about reported cyber attacks on Google in China, monitoring of human rights activists and censoring of information on the Internet, and Washington is hoping to overcome Beijing's reluctance to agree to new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

Gibbs said Wednesday that Obama has consistently been "clear that this meeting would happen. . . . Chinese officials have known about this; their reaction is their reaction.

"I think a mature relationship between two countries allows you to do things like working on nonproliferation on North Korea or working on a response to the global economic crisis, but also have disagreements."

The visit comes as ethnic Tibetans observe Losar, their New Year, and as the Chinese gird for the March anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising. The anniversary typically stokes unrest and crackdowns in Tibet.

China has recently stepped up its own talks with Tibetan representatives.

"I think we see a China that is more conscious of its role in the world and that it needs to bring its own population more together rather than alienating them," said Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University's Weatherhead East Asian Institute. "I think the meeting with the president and the Dalai Lama helps raise the discussion in China, potentially.

"It's always been very interesting that American presidents seem to gain a lot domestically and increasingly internationally when they meet the Dalai Lama."

(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article.)


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