WASHINGTON // Despite the possibility of a diplomatic backlash, Barack Obama today will meet the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual and political leader whose visits to the US capital have long been a source of tension with China.
The meeting, scheduled to take place in the West Wing of the White House, risks further complicating a US-Chinese relationship that has been strained of late on several fronts, including recent disagreements over trade, arms sales and sanctions on Iran. China, which maintains that Tibet is part of its territory and views the Dalai Lama as a threat, has warned Mr Obama to cancel the meeting. Zhu Weiqun, a Communist Party leader responsible for China's Tibet affairs, said the meeting would "seriously undermine the political foundation of Sino-US relations" and "threaten trust and co-operation".
"We will take corresponding action to make relevant countries see their mistakes," he said in a recent news conference. Political posturing aside, such threats from the Chinese are not new and the Dalai Lama's visit, telegraphed by Washington for months, is unlikely to seriously impact the multifaceted relationship between the world's two most powerful countries. In 2007, when Congress awarded the Dalai Lama the Congressional Gold Medal, which, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is the United States's highest civilian honour, China's similar warning of "an extremely serious impact" on relations never came to fruition.
The Dalai Lama, who fled China in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, lives in exile in the north Indian town of Dharamsala. He does not advocate Tibetan independence but wants greater Tibetan autonomy under Chinese rule. Mr Obama chose not to meet with the Dalai Lama during the Buddhist leader's visit to Washington in October, which many interpreted as a gesture to curry favour with Beijing ahead of Mr Obama's trip there the following month. Human rights and Tibet-advocacy groups, however, criticised the decision as a snub and a sign that the new administration was willing to put economic and diplomatic interests ahead of democracy and human-rights concerns.
Even today's visit to Washington is likely to be choreographed so as not to offend the Chinese. Typically the Dalai Lama's meeting with US presidents is held in private and no photographs are released to the public. Mr Obama, as has become custom, will not receive the Dalai Lama in the Oval Office. The meeting comes amid an array of US-Chinese disputes, including a recently finalised US arms sale to Taiwan that prompted China to suspend military exchanges with the United States and security talks on a broad range of issues, including arms control and nuclear non-proliferation. Previous US arms deals with Taiwan, which China considers its province, also have rattled Beijing.
The United States accuses China of artificially depressing its currency in order to boost Chinese exports and the two sides have traded barbs in recent months over climate change and internet censorship. In a speech last month, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, listed China among a group of countries that "restrict free access to information" and "risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century".
Despite such grievances, however, the White House continues to seek Chinese co-operation on a fourth round of United Nations' sanctions against Iran, a move Beijing has resisted because of its extensive economic ties to the Islamic republic. "Right now it's a little bit of a political maelstrom and the Dalai Lama is sort of coming right smack-dab in the middle of it," Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia Studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, said. "As far as the Iran policy is concerned, this is just one more difficult effort on the part of the administration to get Beijing to move."
Still, Ms Economy cautioned against overstating the impact of the Dalai Lama's visit. "The truth is that we've been working for two, three years to bring Beijing on board with tougher measures against Iran and have by and large failed to do so," she said. Tibet support groups have praised Mr Obama for finally scheduling the meeting. Ben Carrdus, a senior researcher at the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, said the visit brings an "opportunity for the US to reassert its core values of democracy and freedom".
He pointed to recent signs of progress in the Tibet-China dispute, including last month's resumption of talks between the Dalai Lama's envoys and Chinese government officials after a 15-month hiatus. "That momentum is something that the president could certainly lend his weight to," he said. The Chinese government had ended talks with the Dalai Lama in November 2008 after rejecting his plans for greater autonomy. Earlier that year, widespread protests broke out across Tibet, leading to a brutal Chinese clampdown.
In a press briefing last week, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, described the Dalai Lama as an "internationally respected religious leader and spokesman for Tibetan rights". He also was confident the Washington visit would not permanently injure US-China relations. "We think we have a mature enough relationship with the Chinese that we can agree on issues that are of mutual interest," he said. "We also have a mature enough relationship that we know that two countries on this planet are not always going to agree on everything."