WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama will speak with the Dalai Lama about Tibet in their first meeting in more than a year on Saturday, the White House said.
Obama’s face time with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader stands to upset China, which is already on edge about the Dalai Lama’s meetings with congressional leaders and the potential for a U.S. debt default.
Beijing warned the United States to stay out of its affairs last week after top lawmakers including Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Democrat Nancy Pelosi met the Dalai Lama during his 10-day visit to Washington.
Saturday’s meeting in the White House Map Room is expected to last at least 30 minutes and will be closed to the news media. But the Obama administration said the question of Tibet was likely to come up.
“The president will highlight his enduring support for dialogue between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and the Chinese government to resolve differences,” the White House said in a statement issued on Friday.
“This meeting underscores the president’s strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans,” it said.
China accuses the Dalai Lama of being a separatist who supports the use of violence to set up an independent Tibet.
The Nobel Prize laureate denies this, saying he wants a peaceful transition to autonomy for the remote Himalayan region that China has ruled with an iron fist since 1950, when Chinese troops marched in.
Kate Saunders, a spokeswoman for the International Campaign for Tibet, a human rights group that works closely with Tibetan exiles, said Tibet’s capital Lhasa was “under virtual lockdown” ahead of the anniversary of the 1950 invasion.
“The meeting is a significant acknowledgment by the White House of the importance of direct discussion between President Obama and the Dalai Lama at a time of crisis in Tibet,” Saunders said.
China’s foreign ministry has alleged the Dalai Lama — who fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising — is using his U.S. trip “to engage in activities to split the motherland” and has made clear its opposition to U.S. engagement on Tibet.
“The affairs of Tibet are a purely Chinese internal matter, and China resolutely opposes any country or any person interfering in China’s internal affairs on the issue of Tibet,” the Chinese foreign ministry said on July 9.
Obama last met the Dalai Lama in February 2010, in a visit that drew a strong denunciation from Beijing.
Saturday’s White House meeting comes at an extra sensitive moment for China, the United States’ biggest creditor, with leaders in Washington at odds over how to raise the $14.3 trillion U.S. debt ceiling in time to avoid default.
China holds more than $1 trillion in U.S. Treasury debt and would be particularly exposed should Congress fail to reach a deal by Aug. 2. A U.S. default could rocket up interest rates, sink the value of the U.S. dollar and hurt the global economy.
Beijing has urged Washington to “adopt responsible policies and measures to guarantee the interests of investors.” Obama has asked for congressional leaders to give him proposals by Saturday on how to advance talks on a deal.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; editing by Todd Eastham)