Defying China, Obama to hear Dalai Lama

WASHINGTON: Defying anger from China, US President Barack Obama on Thursday meets Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama who plans to seek his assistance in finding a solution in his homeland.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureates will speak away from the cameras in the White House Map Room for a meeting the US administration calls private but which China has warned could worsen relations between the Pacific powers.

The Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959, landed in snowy Washington on Wednesday and immediately joined a group of fellow Tibetan exiles as they celebrated their new year, Losar, at a downtown hotel.

The 74-year-old Buddhist monk bowed to the Tibetan well-wishers, tasting milk and tea which children presented to him and throwing a ceremonial offering of rice over his shoulder.

Lodi Gyari, his lead negotiator in on-off dialogue with China, said that the Dalai Lama hoped to speak to Obama both about global concerns and the situation in Tibet where China sent troops in 1950.

"His Holiness will be asking the president to help find a solution in resolving the Tibet issue that would be mutually beneficial to the Tibetan and Chinese people," Gyari said.

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.

Toner 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 we're going to continue to pursue that relationship vigorously."

The Dalai Lama says he accepts Chinese rule over his homeland, as do virtually all countries including the United States. 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 including Gyari, 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 enjoys a wide following in the United States and every sitting US president has met with him 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 6.4-billion-dollar 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.