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Asia-Pacific
Obama fixes date for Dalai Lama
White House confirms February 18 meeting despite angry protests from Beijing.
Last Modified: 12 Feb 2010 05:17 GMT
The Chinese government has branded the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader a separatist [Reuters]

The US president will meet the Dalai Lama in Washington next week, the White House has said, ignoring strong protests from Beijing to withdraw the invitation.

China, which had already warned that any meeting could hurt already-strained relations between the two countries, quickly reiterated its call for the meeting not to go ahead.

In a statement on Thursday White House spokesman Robert Gibbs confirmed that Barack Obama would meet the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader on February 18.

"The Dalai Lama is an internationally respected religious leader. He's a spokesman for Tibetan rights," Robert Gibbs, a White House spokesman, said on Thursday.

"The president looks forward to an engaging and constructive meeting."
 
In a possible nod to Chinese sensitivities the meeting is scheduled to take place in the White House Map Room, and not the symbolic surroundings of the Oval Office, where Obama normally meets foreign dignitaries.

'High sensitivity'

It is unclear as yet if Obama and the Dalai Lama, branded a separatist by the Chinese government, would meet in the open or behind closed doors.

"China urges the US... to immediately call off the wrong decision of arranging for President Obama to meet with the Dalai Lama... to avoid any more damage to Sino-US relations"

Ma Zhaoxu, China foreign ministry spokeman

Hours after the White House announcement, China's foreign ministry lodged a formal protest urging the US to immediately withdraw the decision.

"We firmly oppose the Dalai Lama visiting the United States and US leaders having contact with him," Ma Zhaoxu, a ministry spokesman, said in a statement.

"We urge the US side to fully understand the high sensitivity of Tibet-related issues, and honour its commitment to recognise Tibet as part of China and to oppose 'Tibet independence'," he said.

He added that the meeting was a "wrong decision" and said it should be called off "to avoid any more damage to Sino-US relations".

The 74-year-old monk fled his Tibet homeland to exile in India in 1959, after a failed uprising against Beijing rule some nine years after Chinese troops were sent to take control of the region.

Strained ties

Obama avoided meeting the Dalai Lama when he visited Washington last year.

However in November the US president had warned Chinese leaders on a visit to Beijing of his intention to meet the exiled Tibetan leader.

Next week's meeting comes at a time when China-US ties have become strained over several issues, including a $6.4bn arms sale to Taiwan, the self-governing island Beijing claims as its own.

Relations have also been strained over internet censorship, with search giant Google Inc threatening to shut down its China business following what it said were cyber-attacks against the email accounts of rights activists.

Source:
Agencies
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