WASHINGTON — The Dalai Lama’s chief envoy said Tuesday that President Barack Obama probably will not make a public appearance this week with the Tibetan spiritual leader during a White House visit that is already infuriating China.
Briefing reporters Tuesday on the eve of the Dalai Lama’s arrival, Lodi Gyari said Thursday’s meeting in the White House between the Nobel Peace laureates, even if out of the public eye, would be an important boost for Tibet and for the broader U.S. commitment to human rights.
A joint appearance by Obama and the Dalai Lama before reporters could make tense U.S.-China ties even worse and further complicate U.S. efforts to secure Chinese help in settling North Korean and Iranian nuclear standoffs and crucial economic, military and environmental problems.
The Dalai Lama, who has met with every U.S. president for the last two decades, is a recurring needle in U.S.-Chinese ties. China accuses the monk of pushing for Tibetan independence, which he has denied repeatedly. The Chinese consider the Dalai Lama’s meetings with any foreign leaders to be an infringement on Chinese sovereignty.
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This week’s meeting follows a tense couple of months in the U.S.-Chinese relationship, which the Obama administration has called the world’s most important. Besides the recurrence of the Dalai Lama visit, the United States recently announced a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan, the self-governing democratic island that Beijing claims as its own.
Gyari said that while the Dalai Lama does not care where he meets the president, the symbolism of the location is very important to other Tibetans and to human rights activists in the United States and elsewhere. Gyari said he has always been puzzled by U.S. presidents not meeting with the Dalai Lama in the Oval Office.
Former President George W. Bush appeared at the public presentation in 2007 of a Congressional Gold Medal Award to the Dalai Lama, but presidential meetings with the monk typically have been held away from reporters, often in the White House’s private residences.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday that he did not know whether Obama and the Dalai Lama would make a televised appearance after their meeting.
Obama received heavy criticism when he did not meet with the Dalai Lama when the monk came to Washington in October. Gyari called that decision a “setback” and said it hurt Tibetans, who expect the Dalai Lama to meet with the president when he visits Washington.
Gyari said that smaller countries also could point to the decision as a precedent for bowing to pressure by China to scrap meetings with the Dalai Lama. The White House said no meeting was scheduled with the Dalai Lama in October so that Obama could better raise Tibet issues in a November summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Gyari said his high-level talks with Chinese officials last month on Tibetan efforts to gain greater autonomy produced no results. He warned that the Dalai Lama is China’s best chance for gaining legitimacy for its rule in Tibet and said Beijing must stop insulting the Dalai Lama and treating Tibetans as second-class citizens.
He said China’s angry reaction to Thursday’s meeting is a sign of worrisome arrogance and chauvinism in Beijing.
China maintains that Tibet has been part of its territory for centuries, but many Tibetans say the region was functionally independent for much of its history.