BEIJING — China protested President Barack Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in strong terms today, saying it “seriously harms” bilateral relations and demanding the U.S. take steps to improve ties.
Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai summoned U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman to lodge a “solemn representation” over Thursday’s meeting at the White House, which Beijing called an interference in Chinese domestic affairs.
“The behavior of the U.S. side seriously interferes in China’s internal politics, seriously hurts the national feelings of the Chinese people and seriously harms U.S.-China relations,” a Foreign Ministry statement said, quoting spokesman Ma Zhaoxu.
The meeting was seen as another test of rocky ties between Beijing and Washington, strained in recent weeks by issues ranging from Taiwan arms sales to cyber-spying allegations.
But the Foreign Ministry protest echoed Beijing’s response to previous U.S. presidential meetings with the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader and does not necessarily reflect a serious breach in ties. The White House gave the Dalai Lama relatively low-profile treatment, staging the meeting in the Map Room, a less prominent venue than the Oval Office. And despite recent diplomatic spats with Washington, Beijing also wants to maintain healthy relations.
Ma’s statement said China demands “the U.S. side seriously consider China’s stance, immediately adopt measures to wipe out the baneful impact and stop conniving and supporting anti-China separatist forces that seek Tibet independence.”
China accuses the Dalai Lama of seeking to remove Tibet from Chinese rule and objects strongly to all contact between him and overseas leaders.
The White House said Obama told the Dalai Lama that he backs the preservation of Tibet’s culture and supports human rights for its people. He also gave encouragement to the Dalai Lama’s request for talks with the Chinese government.
While the meeting was long expected, the administration had taken considerable measures to limit its impact on China-U.S. relations. Obama had declined to see the Dalai Lama during his Washington stay in October because it would have come before the president’s November China visit.
There was no welcome fanfare on Thursday and Obama made no public comments, issuing only a brief statement through his spokesman. The White House banned reporters and TV cameras, distributing a single photo of the two leaders.
Meetings between the Dalai Lama and U.S. presidents became standard fare under former President George H.W. Bush nearly 20 years ago. But the choreography is always delicate and closely watched because of China’s sensitivities.
The meeting came at a time when U.S.-Chinese relations are particularly raw, with China suspending military-to-military exchanges and warning of further retaliation over the Obama administration’s approval of a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Taiwan, the self-governing democratic island that Beijing claims as its own.
Disputes over trade, exchange rates, and human rights have also ratcheted up tensions, although Beijing has recently signaled it wants to avoid a major crisis.
In one of the clearest such indications, Beijing allowed five American warships to dock for a port call in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong on Wednesday. China has in past canceled such visits to indicate its displeasure with U.S. actions.
Further limiting its impact, the visit came during China’s national Lunar New Year holiday, when government offices are closed and media coverage reduced. Neither the White House or the Dalai Lama, who is giving a series of lectures in the U.S., said whether the meeting’s timing was deliberate.
After the White House meeting, the Dalai Lama chided Beijing for taking a “childish” and “limited” approach to Tibet’s quest for greater autonomy and said Obama had been “very much supportive” of his views on human rights and the concerns of the Tibetan people.
His envoy, Lodi Gyari, said Tibetans feeling marginalized by China would get encouragement from the session.
The 75-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner denies China’s accusations of separatism, saying he wants only for Tibetans to have a greater say over their affairs while remaining under Chinese rule. The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 and has since led a self-declared government-in-exiled in India.
China claims Tibet has been part of its territory for centuries and sent communist forces to occupy the Himalayan region in 1950. Many Tibetans say they were functionally independent for most of their history and accuse China of undermining Tibet’s unique Buddhist culture and flooding the region with Chinese migrants.
Sporadic contacts between the Dalai Lama’s envoys and Chinese officials were renewed last month after a break of more than a year. No breakthroughs were announced and China has made no firm indications of offering concessions to the Tibetan side.