Risking a further souring of already difficult Sino-American relations, President Barack Obama welcomed the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, into the White House yesterday.
But Mr Obama's hospitality, limited by China's anger at the reception, did not extend to the invitation into the Oval Office that a head of state would receive. And he was careful not to appear with the Tibetan figurehead in a public setting.
The encounter, nonetheless, attracted a crowd of pro-Tibet activists, who waved flags and chanted their pleasure across Pennsylvania Avenue in Lafayette Park. There were reports from northwestern Qinghai Province in China, where many Tibetans live, of celebratory fireworks fired off into the night.
For his part, the Dalai Lama said afterwards that he was "very happy" with the meeting. "I feel great honour seeing [the] President of the greatest democratic country," he said, adding praise for America "as a champion of democracy, freedom, human value, human creativity, these things".
Chinese officials warned in advance that any meeting would cause "serious damage" to relations between Washington and Beijing. The government of China continues to brand the Dalai Lama a separatist intent on fomenting violence in the province of Tibet. But the figurehead has remained committed to a campaign for autonomous rule for Tibetans and greater protection for their culture, stopping short of complete secession from China.
Mr Obama reiterated his "strong support" for the Dalai Lama's work towards "the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People's Republic of China," a White House statement issued after the meeting said, adding praise for the Dalai Lama's "pursuit of dialogue with the Chinese government".
While human rights groups welcomed yesterday's talks, some still bemoaned their low-key orchestration. "I don't understand, as an activist, why the President would not meet him in the Oval Office, when the Oval Office hosts all kinds of girls scouts and basketball players," said Mary Beth Markey, vice- president for international advocacy for the International Campaign for Tibet.
Others were less critical. "As the leader of the free world, President Obama is uniquely positioned to help broker a negotiated resolution that will give the Tibetan people the freedom they long for and deserve," said Tenzin Dorjee, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet.
Mr Obama had previously angered human rights activists when he declined to see the Dalai Lama during a visit to Washington in October because it came very shortly before his first planned official visit to China. The White House insisted at the time that the meeting had merely been postponed.
The rearranged visit followed a tradition of White House receptions for the Tibetan leader. Just as with past administrations, the White House trod a careful line between appeasing human rights groups and minimising potential damage with China.
Mr Obama has also faced pressure to begin showing a sterner face to Beijing, which has paid little heed to calls for restraining its export engine. They "have known about this and their reaction is their reaction," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs dismissively on the eve of the visit. Tensions between the countries have grown, not least in the wake of Washington's decision to go forward with a $6.4bn arms sale to Taiwan, officially described by Beijing as a renegade province of the mainland. Also in the air is the ongoing row about the internet regarding censorship and allegations of cyber-snooping of dissidents.
China, however, remains the second-biggest creditor to the US at a time of ballooning national debt and Mr Obama has been working hard to gain support from its government on issues that include reining in Iran and reaching an international deal on global warming.Reuse content