U.S. President Barack Obama met with Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on Saturday and highlighted the need for human rights protection in the Beijing-ruled Himalayan territory, drawing a furious response from China.
The two Nobel laureates held their 45-minute noon talks in the White House residence's Map Room—not the Oval Office where the president welcomes heads of state—as U.S. officials attempted to keep the meeting as low-key as possible.
Still, Beijing condemned the meeting, saying it had damaged relations between the world's two biggest economies.
"Such an act has grossly interfered in China's internal affairs, hurt the feelings of Chinese people and damaged the Sino-American relations," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a written statement, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
But the Dalai Lama said the meeting was "wonderful," pointing out that Obama showed "genuine concern" for the plight of the Tibetans, who are facing a harsh crackdown by the Chinese authorities.
Obama is the "president of the greatest democratic country, so naturally he is showing concern about basic human values, human rights, religious freedom, these things," the 76-year-old leader told reporters as he retreated to his hotel after the meeting.
The White House said Obama pledged "strong support for the preservation of the unique religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions of Tibet and the Tibetan people throughout the world."
"He underscored the importance of the protection of human rights of Tibetans in China" and commended the Dalai Lama’s "commitment to nonviolence and dialogue with China and his pursuit of the 'Middle Way' approach."
Under such an approach, the Tibetan people will not push for independence from China but seek "meaningful" autonomy for the Himalayan territory that Beijing has ruled since 1950.
Reiterating the U.S. policy that Tibet is a part of China and the United States does not support independence for Tibet, Obama stressed that he encourages direct dialogue to resolve long-standing differences, a White House statement said.
A dialogue that produces results would be positive for China and Tibetans, the statement said.
The Dalai Lama, who is accused by Beijing of being a separatist, said that he is not seeking independence for Tibet and hopes that dialogue between his envoys and the Chinese government can soon resume, according to the statement.
The Dalai Lama, who fled to India after a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese occupation, has been the face and symbol of the Tibetan freedom struggle for more than five decades.
After the Obama-Dalai Lama meeting, the Chinese foreign ministry issued an "urgent summons" to the U.S. charge d'affaires in Beijing in the early hours of Sunday morning (Beijing time) to protest the talks, according to a Xinhua report.
"We demand the U.S. side to seriously consider China's stance, immediately adopt measures to wipe out the baneful impact, stop interfering in China's internal affairs and cease to connive and support anti-China separatist forces that seek 'Tibet independence,'" Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Ma said.
China had also lodged an official protest after the White House scheduled the meeting on Friday.
The statement said the meeting had gone against U.S. commitments, according to the Xinhua report, though no details of these were given.
The Dalai Lama's special envoy, Lodi Gyari, said Obama also asked the Dalai Lama, who retired in March as political leader of the Tibetan government in exile, to continue to shepherd the dialogue between his envoys and the Chinese authorities.
"The Dalai Lama agreed and said it is his responsibility to do everything for the interest and benefit of the Tibetan people," Gyari said.
The Dalai Lama's envoys have held nine rounds of talks with Beijing, but there has been no breakthrough in terms of greater autonomy for the territory.
Gyari said Obama also gave an assurance that the Tibet issue would continue to be raised by the U.S. with the Chinese government at all levels of bilateral talks.
Obama last met the Dalai Lama at the same venue in February 2010 in talks which also had infuriated Beijing.
Saturday's meeting was held as the Dalai Lama wrapped up a nearly two-week visit to Washington where he led thousands in a Buddhist meditation ritual.
Last week, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, and top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi met the Dalai Lama, raising concerns in Beijing.
The Obama-Dalai Lama talks came as Beijing stepped up its crackdown in Tibet and in Tibetan-majority areas in China.
Tibet under Chinese rule was rated among 10 most repressive societies in a survey published last month by U.S.-based rights group Freedom House.
The International Campaign for Tibet, which works closely with the Dalai Lama, said Tibetans across the territory "are suffering the effects of a pervasive security crackdown in response to demonstrations for the return of the Dalai Lama and an end to repressive measures that suppress the free expression of their Tibetan identity."
In southwestern China’s Sichuan province, security forces have detained at least 300 Tibetan monks from the Kirti monastery amid a crackdown sparked by the self-immolation of a monk protesting Chinese rule in Ngaba (in Chinese, Ganzi) prefecture, and paramilitary forces still have the monastery on lockdown.
And in the Kardze (in Chinese, Ganzi) Tibetan prefecture of Sichuan province, Chinese authorities have clamped down hard on protests against Beijing rule, with more than 60 people detained, mostly lamas or local people.Reported by Tamdin Wangchuk for RFA's Tibetan Service and Parameswaran Ponnudurai.