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Dalai Lama gets upbeat - but quiet - Obama welcome

February 21, 2010

By JENNIFER LOVEN and FOSTER KLUG
The Associated Press (AP)
February 18, 2010

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama personally
welcomed the Dalai Lama to the White House on
Thursday and lauded his goals for the Tibetan
people, but he kept their get-together off-camera
and low-key in an attempt to avoid inflaming tensions with China.

At the risk of angering Beijing, Obama did tell
the exiled spiritual leader 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

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 sensitivity.

Revered in much of the world, the Dalai Lama is
seen by Beijing as a separatist seeking to
overthrow Chinese rule of Tibet. Though he says
that is untrue, China regards any official
foreign leader's contact with the Buddhist monk
as an infringement on its sovereignty over the
mountainous region and as a particularly
unwelcome snub. China had urged Obama not to meet with the Dalai Lama.

China is a rising global rival for the U.S. and a
hoped-for partner. So concern about reprisals, in
the form of reduced cooperation with Washington
or other punitive steps, has led American
presidents, including Obama, to tread carefully.

In Beijing, Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai
summoned U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman to lodge a
protest over Thursday's meeting in the White
House Map Room, the ministry said in a statement posted on its Web site.

"The behavior of the U.S. side seriously
interferes in China's internal politics and
seriously hurts the national feelings of the
Chinese people," the statement said, quoting spokesman Ma Zhaoxu.

There was no welcome fanfare on Thursday, nor a
public appearance with the president. The White
House released only a single official picture,
rather than allow independent photographers and
reporters to see the two men together. An
official photograph was also the only release
after the monk met later with Secretary of State
Hillary Rodham Clinton. This from a president who
promised -- and in some other ways has
delivered—unprecedented transparency in his White House.

The Dalai Lama did meet with reporters outside
the White House, playfully tossing a bit of snow
at them and declaring himself "very happy" with
the visit, and had a short news conference at his hotel.

There, he chided China for what he called its
"childish" and "limited" approach to Tibetan
efforts for greater rights. He said he expected a
negative Chinese reaction to his meeting with Obama.

George H.W. Bush allowed no photos of his 1991
talks with the Dalai Lama. Bill Clinton avoided
formal sessions altogether, favoring drop-bys
into the Dalai Lama's other meetings. George W.
Bush kept his meetings under wraps, too -- though
in 2007, he broke with tradition and appeared in
public with the Dalai Lama to present him with
the Congressional Gold Medal, at the Capitol.

Everything about Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama was muted.

"The optics of this thing are incredibly
important to the Chinese," said Michael Green,
George W. Bush's senior Asia adviser.

So Obama sat down with his fellow Nobel laureate
in the Map Room instead of the Oval Office -- a
decidedly lower status in the White House venue
pecking order. Even the White House description
of the talks was done on paper. The timing was a
concession, too, as Obama declined to see the
Dalai Lama during his Washington stay in October
because it would have come before the president's November China visit.

"The president stated his strong support for the
preservation of Tibet's unique religious,
cultural and linguistic identity and the
protection of human rights for Tibetans in the
People's Republic of China," White House press
secretary Robert Gibbs said after the private
meeting that lasted for more than an hour.

Obama's handling of the Dalai Lama visit has
concerned some who watched Obama seek the moral
high ground on human rights during his campaign and early presidency.

Even more, to a public worried about the loss of
U.S. jobs and global influence to China, the
deference could come across as bending to
Beijing's priorities. Similar questions arose
during Obama's Asia trip, when some analysts
concluded that the president gave much to China and got little back.

Obama, however, prides himself on pragmatism.

He believes China's help is the linchpin for
several difficult and consequential global
problems, from nuclear standoffs in Iran and
North Korea to international agreement on fighting climate change.

Further, while U.S.-Chinese relations have been
strained for years over currency and military
disputes and other issues, Beijing's rapid growth
of late has the two powerhouses moving closer to
equals. With the Chinese government holding
nearly $800 billion of federal U.S. debt, Beijing
has extraordinary leverage in the relationship.
Most recently, the Obama administration's
approval of a multibillion-dollar arms sale to
Taiwan, the self-governing democratic island that
Beijing claims as its own, has raised tensions.

For the Dalai Lama, who fled his homeland to
India in 1959 during a failed uprising eight
years after Chinese troops took over Tibet, the
visit -- whether private or not-- was a boon.

His envoy, Lodi Gyari, said Tibetans feeling
marginalized by China would get encouragement
from the session. Green said just the "fact that
they spend time together in an intimate setting
means everything for the Tibetan cause."

Speaking to reporters on the White House
driveway, the Dalai Lama said he spoke to the
president about the promotion of human values,
religious harmony, a greater leadership role for
women around the world and the concerns of the Tibetan people, and that Obama
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