Obama angers Beijing by agreeing to meet Dalai Lama

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The prospect of a full-blown diplomatic spat between China and the US moved closer yesterday when the White House revealed that the Dalai Lama will be invited to meet Barack Obama during his visit to the US this month.

By breaking bread with Tibet's spiritual leader, the US President will please left-leaning supporters at home. But he risks upsetting Beijing at a time when Washington desperately needs its support to solve nuclear stand-offs with Iran and North Korea.

In view of the sensitivity of the issue, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs refused to give a date for the meeting, or to say whether the two men would appear in public together, telling reporters only that the Dalai Lama "will be here later this month". The Chinese government countered that it "resolutely opposes" the Dalai Lama's entire visit to the US, regarding it as part of a PR campaign to promote Tibetan independence – a cause Beijing refuses to allow its own citizens to even discuss.

A Chinese foreign ministry statement yesterday urged President Obama to "recognise the high sensitivity of the Tibet issue and handle related issues carefully and appropriately to avoid causing more harm to Sino-US ties".

Four months ago, Mr Obama caved in to similar demands from Beijing and cancelled a planned meeting with the Nobel Laureate, promising he would instead discuss Tibetan independence at a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in November. That failed to happen and tensions between the administrations have since grown. Last week, Beijing reacted furiously to news that the US was selling $6.4bn worth of weapons to Taiwan, the self-governing island China considers its own.

Mr Gibbs stressed yesterday: "There will be issues we disagree on in private and in public," he said. "We envision this relationship as one where we can work together on issues of mutual concern."