WASHINGTON/BEIJING (Reuters) - President Barack Obama held low-key talks with the Dalai Lama on Friday, prompting the Chinese government to ask why the White House ignored Beijing's warnings that the meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader would damage ties.
China's vice foreign minister, Zhang Yesui, summoned Daniel Kritenbrink, charge d'affaires of the U.S. embassy in China, on Friday night, according to a statement posted on the Chinese Foreign Ministry's website.
"The United States must take concrete actions to gain the trust of the Chinese government and people," Zhang said.
Obama's private meeting with the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, lasted about an hour. The White House sidestepped questions about whether it was worried about the reaction from China.
"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.
The uproar is expected to be one of many challenges for the new U.S. ambassador in China, Max Baucus, who was sworn in to his new role on Friday by Vice President Joe Biden.
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 says he only wants genuine autonomy for Tibet and denies advocating violence.
Human rights groups say China tramples on the rights of Tibetans and employs brutal methods to enforce its rule. 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 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 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 Tibet.
It was the third time Obama had met the Dalai Lama, whom 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 the president normally meets visiting leaders.
The Dalai Lama did not speak to the media after the meeting, unlike in 2011 when he spoke to reporters after meeting Obama.
"This meeting sends a powerful message of hope to Tibetans in Tibet who are undergoing immense suffering," Lobsang Sangay, leader of the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan government-in-exile, said in a statement.
NO SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES EXPECTED
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. As part of this strategy, he plans a week-long visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines in late April.
Beijing had urged the White House to cancel the meeting with the Dalai Lama after it was announced on Thursday evening, saying it would seriously damage Sino-U.S. relations.
"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.
"(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."
MEETING KEPT PRIVATE
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, Sandra Maler and Mohammad Zargham)
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Updated Date: Feb 22, 2014 08:00:09 IST