President Barack Obama held low-key talks with the Dalai Lama at the White House on Friday after warnings from Beijing that the meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader would “seriously damage” ties with Washington.
The private meeting lasted about an hour, although the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was not seen by White House photographers as he entered or exited the complex.
The White House sidestepped questions about whether it was worried Obama’s meeting – his third with the Dalai Lama – would upset its relationship with China. Analysts said they did not foresee any serious consequences.
“We are committed to a constructive relationship with China in which we work together to solve regional and global problems,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told a regular news briefing, noting that Obama and other U.S. presidents had previously met with the Tibetan leader.
China calls the Dalai Lama, who fled to India after a failed uprising in 1959, a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who seeks to use violent methods to establish an independent Tibet. The Dalai Lama maintains he only wants genuine autonomy for Tibet and denies advocating violence.
Human rights groups say China tramples on the rights of Tibetans and enforces its rule using brutal methods. More than 120 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 in protest against China. Most have died.
Obama reaffirmed his support for Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions and human rights for Tibetans, the White House said in a statement.
Obama also said he does not support Tibetan independence from China and the Dalai Lama said he was not seeking it, the White House said.
“We’re concerned about continuing tensions and that the deteriorating human rights situation in Tibetan areas of China,” Carney told reporters.
“We will continue to urge the Chinese government to resume dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives without pre-conditions as a means to reduce tensions,” he said.
To encourage those talks, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Friday he had named one of his officials, Sarah Sewall, as a Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues.
Sewall was sworn in on Thursday as an undersecretary responsible for human rights issues, a post which traditionally has involved work on Tibetan issues.
It was the third time Obama had met the Dalai Lama, who the White House calls “an internationally respected religious and cultural leader.” Previous meetings were in February 2010 and July 2011.
In what appeared to be a small concession to the Chinese, the visit was held in the White House Map Room, a historically important room but of less significance than the more prestigious Oval Office, where he normally meets visiting leaders.
The Dalai Lama did not speak to the media after the meeting, although he did after the last time he met Obama in 2011.
A statement from the Central Tibetan Administration – the exiled Tibetan government – said it lasted almost an hour.
“This meeting sends a powerful message of hope to Tibetans in Tibet who are undergoing immense suffering,” Lobsang Sangay, the group’s leader, said in a statement.