Ignoring strenuous objections from China, President Barack Obama went ahead with a planned meeting at the White House with the Dalai Lama, his third since taking office.
The meeting, focusing on human rights in China, was held in the Map Room instead of the Oval Office as a gesture to Beijing indicating that the Tibetan spiritual leader was not being treated as a head of state. There was no public fanfare for the visit or access for White House reporters.
China continues to accuse the Dalai Lama of fomenting unrest in Tibetan areas of China, encouraging protests by Tibetan activists including public self-immolations. The White House announced the visit only on Thursday, triggering an almost instant rebuke from Beijing.
The meeting would be “a gross interference in China’s internal affairs and is a serious violation of the norms of international relations”, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. “It will seriously damage Sino-US relations. We urge the United States to take seriously China’s concerns, immediately cancel plans for the US leader to meet the Dalai, do not facilitate and provide a platform for Dalai’s anti-China separatist activities in the United States.”
The White House responded by noting that the monk has met with several US presidents over decades. “The United States supports the Dalai Lama’s ‘Middle Way’ approach of neither assimilation nor independence for Tibetans in China,” said Caitlin Hayden, a National Security Council spokeswoman. “We are concerned about continuing tensions and the deteriorating human rights situation in Tibetan areas of China.”
Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat leader in Congress, said on Twitter: “President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama today sends a strong message of support for human rights, peace, and compassion.”.
Mr Obama is due to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the nuclear security summit in the Netherlands next month.
The White House is defending its decision to bar reporters and photojournalists from a meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama.
White House spokesman Jay Carney says he acknowledges the news media's legitimate interest in covering the encounter. But he says the decision was consistent with past meetings Obama has held with the Buddhist monk.
Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama drew harsh criticism from China even before it took place. The White House appeared to be trying to keep it low-key to avoid further aggravating Beijing.
At the same time, after declining media requests to photograph the meeting, the White House released its own photo produced by an official government photographer.
The decision comes amid growing media protests about limited access to Obama's events.