White House proceeds with Dalai Lama visit, ignoring China's protests

President Obama met with the Dalai Lama for the fourth time, angering Chinese officials who say the move could undermine US-China relations. 

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo
The Dalai Lama, left, speaks at American University's Bender Arena in Washington DC on Monday. Watching are actor Richard Gere, chairman of the International Campaign for Tibet, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

President Obama met with the Dalai Lama as scheduled on Wednesday, despite objections from the Chinese government.

After Sunday's tragedy in Orlando led Mr. Obama to remain in Washington, DC, instead of traveling to a Wisconsin campaign event with candidate Hillary Clinton as scheduled, he agreed to meet with the Dalai Lama for the fourth time during his years in office.

Representatives of the Chinese government reacted negatively when the meeting was announced. Beijing argues that such meetings encourage a Tibetan separatist movement that they claim is promoted by the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists.

"If President Obama meets with Dalai Lama, it will send the wrong signal to Tibetan separatist forces, and it will undermine the mutual trust and cooperation between China and the US," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a press briefing, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

The White House has maintained that it does not support Tibetan independence. "Tibet, per U.S. policy, is considered part of the People's Republic of China," White House secretary Josh Earnest reiterated on Wednesday, according to CNN. Publicly, the Dalai Lama has pushed for a "middle way," advocating for greater rights and autonomy in Tibet. 

Since the 13th century, China has often claimed Tibet as an inalienable part of China, although the region has been the subject of political disputes for hundreds of years.

After the fall of the Qing dynasty, Tibet enjoyed a brief period of independence from 1913 to 1950, when China again asserted control. In 1951, representatives of the Dalai Lama surrendered sovereignty to China – a process that many who support a free Tibet say was coercion.

Today, Tibet is considered an autonomous region within China. Many Tibetans have protested for a free Tibet over the last half century of Chinese control. The current Dalai Lama now heads the Tibetan government in exile, known as the Central Tibetan Administration, as has drawn attention to Beijing's alleged efforts to suppress Tibetan culture and human rights. 

Global leaders' – and even celebrities' – perceived support for the Dalai Lama have provoked stern rebukes from China. 

After British Prime Minister David Cameron met with the Dalai Lama in 2012, for example, China cut off relations with the United Kingdom. Throughout a 14-month freeze, Chinese officials refused to meet with UK officials, canceling diplomatic trips and meetings.

The president was careful to meet with the Dalai Lama in the White House's Map Room, instead of the Oval Office, which is typically used for meetings with heads of state – the same location as the pair's last meeting, in 2014. 

The US is indeed sending a message of resistance to China, argues Free Tibet media manager Alistair Currie, although it stops short of Tibetan independence. In recent months, the administration has also repeatedly expressed its disapproval toward China's building activities in the disputed South China Sea.

Both the Dalai Lama meeting and the White House's position on maritime policies are two sides of the same coin, Mr. Currie says in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor: "It's all part of a great diplomatic dance."

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