Updated at 3:05 p.m. ET on 2014-2-21
U.S. President Barack Obama pledged "strong support" for Tibetan traditions and human rights during talks Friday with Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dala Lama, the White House said, pushing ahead with the meeting despite a warning by China it could "seriously damage" bilateral ties.
Obama also called on Beijing to resume its long-stalled dialogue with the Dalai Lama's envoys on the prospects for greater autonomy for Tibet, supporting the Tibetan's leader's "Middle Way" approach to a solution to the Tibetan question.
The two Nobel laureates held their talks in the White House residence's Map Room—not the Oval Office where the president welcomes heads of state—as Washington moved to keep the meeting as low-key as possible.
It was their third meeting since Obama entered the White House—with the first taking place in 2010 and the second in 2011. Like previous meetings, the talks Friday were closed to the press.
Still, China issued a strong warning to Washington hours before the talks began at 10 a.m.
"The United States' arrangement for its leader to meet the Dalai would be a gross interference in China's internal affairs and is a serious violation of the norms of international relations," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.
"It will seriously damage Sino-U.S. relations. We urge the United States to take seriously China's concerns, immediately cancel plans for the U.S. leader to meet the Dalai, do not facilitate and provide a platform for Dalai's anti-China separatist activities in the United States," she added.
But Obama pressed ahead with the talks, reiterating "his strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China."
Rights groups say that human rights abuses have increased rapidly over the years in Tibetan-populated areas in China, forcing desperate Tibetans to self-immolate in protest against Beijing's rule and calling for the return of the Dalai Lama.
A total of 127 Tibetans have set themselves ablaze in self-immolation protests in Tibetan areas of China since the burning campaign began in 2009.
The Dalai Lama, who fled to India after a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese occupation, has been the face and symbol of the Tibetan struggle for freedom for more than five decades.
Peace and nonviolence
The White House said that Obama commended the Dalai Lama’s commitment to peace and nonviolence and expressed support for his Middle Way approach.
At the talks, which lasted about an hour, Obama "stressed that he encourages direct dialogue to resolve long-standing differences and that a dialogue that produces results would be positive for China and Tibetans."
The White House had stressed before the meeting that Obama would host the Dalai Lama in his capacity as a respected religious and cultural leader, adding that the U.S. recognizes Tibet as part of China and does not support Tibetan independence.
The statement after the talks also emphasized the point.
It added that "the Dalai Lama stated that he is not seeking independence for Tibet and hopes that dialogue between his representatives and the Chinese government will resume."
"The President and the Dalai Lama agreed on the importance of a positive and constructive relationship between the United States and China."
The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the Tibetan government-in-exile based in Dharamsala, India, slammed China for trying to dictate whom President Obama should or should not meet.
"The action of the Beijing authorities in telling President Obama, the democratically elected leader of the most powerful nation in the world, whom to meet and not meet underscores the intensity of control being exercised on the ethnic populations who remain under Chinese control,” Gyari Dolma, head of CTA's department of home affairs, said at a gathering in Dharamsala held to mourn the death of two recent Tibetan self-immolators.
Diplomats in Beijing have told Reuters news agency that Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to meet at a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands next month.
When asked whether China would cancel the meeting, spokeswoman Hua said, "If any country deliberately insists on harming China's interests, in the end, it will also damage its own interests and will harm the bilateral relations between China and the relevant country," Reuters reported.
Previous meetings between Obama and the Dalai Lama have not had serious repercussions.
Lobsang Sangay, who was elected Tibet’s exile prime minister in 2011 and now holds the title Sikyong or “political leader,” said the Obama-Dalai Lama talks send "a powerful message of hope to Tibetans in Tibet who are undergoing immense suffering," adding that the meeting reflects "the American government and people’s continued commitment to freedom and democracy.”
“I welcome President Obama’s strong endorsement of the Middle Way Approach policy and constructive dialogue without any precondition," he said.
Matteo Mecacci, the president of the International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group, said that American policymakers understand that the stability Chinese leaders seek will not be fulfilled without a solution on Tibet.
"The steadfast U.S. support for dialogue and preservation of Tibet's unique heritage is reflected both through this meeting and through its Tibet policy and programs," he said.
On Thursday, the Dalai Lama began his latest speaking tour of the United States as honored guest at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute for a discussion on happiness and free enterprise.
Reported by RFA's Tibetan Service. Translated by Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.