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Obama meets Dalai Lama, angering China

US President Barack Obama embraces the Dalai Lama at the entrance of the Map Room of the White House on Wednesday. Photo: The White House

US President Barack Obama met privately with the Dalai Lama at the White House on Wednesday, sparking anger from China, which accuses the monk of sponsoring a separatist movement.

The meeting came at a time of heightened tensions between the US and China over Beijing's assertive pursuit of territorial claims in the South China Sea.

The pair discussed issues including human rights and climate change during what the White House called a personal conversation based on Obama's appreciation for the monk's teachings.

Beijing has called the Dalai Lama "an anti-China separatist" and has urged other governments not to host him. Beijing has also blamed the Dalai Lama and others for inciting a wave of self-immolations among Tibetans in recent years.

During their meeting, Obama repeated the US position that Tibet is part of China and that the US doesn't support Tibetan independence, the White House said. The president also urged the Dalai Lama and his representatives to work directly with Chinese officials to resolve differences.

While Beijing says that the leader encourages Tibetan independence, the Dalai Lama has pushed for what he calls a "middle way", advocating for greater autonomy for Tibet, but not independence.

Obama lauded the Dalai Lama's approach, the White House said, as well as his commitment to peace and nonviolence.

The Dalai Lama reaffirmed that he isn't seeking independence for Tibet and wants to resume a dialogue with the Chinese government, the White House said.

Before the session at the White House was even announced, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman sharply criticized any decision that could lend legitimacy to the Dalai Lama's claims that Tibet should be independent from China.

"The US government made solemn commitments. It acknowledges that there is only one China, that Tibet is an inseparable part of China and will never recognize the so-called Tibetan government in exile," the spokesman, Lu Kang, said during a daily press briefing on Tuesday.

"Under the cloak of religion, the 14th Dalai Lama peddles his political ambitions of dividing China all around the world," the spokesman added. "We ask all countries and governments not to give him any room to carry out such campaigns, even less risking arousing the firm opposition from the 1.3 billion Chinese people."

A commentary on China's official Xinhua news agency accused Washington of breaking its promise not to support Tibet's independence by going ahead with the meeting. It said that had "seriously jeopardized China-US relations, and deeply hurt the Chinese people's feelings".

"Supporting Tibet's independence is a clear interference in China's internal affairs and is in gross violation of the norms of international relations. Playing the 'Tibet card' shows the US government is overdrawing its political credit and international prestige."

Nationalistic Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times said the meeting showed Obama's "mean side."

"While Obama often says he welcomes China's peaceful rise, his meetings with the Dalai Lama erode his sincerity and make him look more like he is helping the latter continue to make trouble with China," the paper said in an editorial.

Obama and the Dalai Lama met in the Map Room, on the ground floor of the White House residence. Obama and previous presidents have avoided receiving the Dalai Lama in the Oval Office, a setting typically reserved for visiting heads of state or government leaders.

Josh Earnest, the White House Press Secretary, said on Wednesday that the meeting's venue indicated that it was a personal greeting rather than formal bilateral talks.

Earnest reiterated that US policy toward Tibet remained unchanged.

"Tibet, per US policy, is considered part of the People's Republic of China, and the United States has not articulated our support for Tibetan independence," he said. "Both the Dalai Lama and President Obama value the importance of a constructive and productive relationship between the United States and China. All of those were policy positions of the United States before the meeting occurred. Our policy hasn't changed after the meeting."

Obama has met with the Dalai Lama on three other occasions—in 2014, 2011 and 2010.

As in 2014, the White House said that the president "believes in preserving Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions".

Any change in US policy toward Tibet could have withering effects for the US-China relationship, which is delicately balanced between areas of cooperation and deep disagreements.

The US and China have been at odds over Beijing's claims to territory and resources in the South China Sea, pitting it against Washington's allies in the region and leading to tense encounters between US and Chinese military aircraft. The two countries also have had economic differences over China's currency and manufacturing policies.

The strains overshadowed annual strategic and economic talks held between top government officials of the two countries in Beijing last week, which ended without any significant breakthrough.

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