BEIJING, Feb. 3 (UPI) -- The possibility of President Barack Obama meeting the self-exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet has again sparked warnings from Beijing that bilateral relations could be harmed.
The warning by China, already outraged over $6.4 billion worth of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, came from Zhu Weiqun, the man heading up talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama. He made his comments while informing reporters about a lack of progress in five days of talks.
Obama plans to meet with the Dalai Lama when the Tibetan, often said to be the spiritual leader of the 6 million Tibetans, visits the United States likely at the end of this month. But no date has been set.
Last month U.S. National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said the president "has made clear to the Chinese government that we intend to meet with the Dalai Lama. It has been his every intention," CNN reported.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in January that the United States will continue to support the Dalai Lama, as well as sell arms to Taiwan. However, the United States will also make all efforts to engage China in a way that their bilateral relationship "doesn't go off the rails when we have differences of opinion."
The globetrotting Dalai Lama was last in Washington in October, during which time he met with Undersecretary for Global Affairs Maria Otero and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi awarded him the first Lantos Human Rights Prize, honoring his work to end injustice. The award is sponsored by the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, named after the late Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif. Lantos, who had been the only Holocaust survivor in Congress.
Despite these high-profile meetings, any meeting with the president during the Dalai Lama's forthcoming trip might be hanging in the balance as the Obama administration weighs the pros and cons. As with Beijing's claim to Taiwan, Tibet has been, and looks set to remain, a sensitive issue for many Western governments as they balance their criticism of Chinese human-rights abuses and their desire for an economic dialogue.
Obama has taken into account at least once before the diplomatic sensitivities over such a get together with the Dalai Lama. He was himself heavily criticized at home when he postponed a meeting until after he had visited Beijing last November.
Zhu's latest warning is part of China's decades-long battle to see that the Dalai Lama, who they consider a fomenter of separatist sentiment within Tibet, is sidelined as an international pariah.
The be-speckled and shaven-headed Dalai Lama, 75, has lived in exile in Dharamshala in northern India since 1959. He escaped Tibet just ahead of the incoming Chinese communist army.
Zhu, also executive vice minister for the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee, said an Obama meeting with the Buddhist monk would, apart from being both irrational and harmful, violate international rules. "If a country decides to do so, we will take necessary measures to help them realize this," Zhu said in a major report by the Xinhua news agency.
China's external warnings also have resonance within Tibet. The message is loud and clear that, although there is some form of administrative autonomy for the country, the authorities will swiftly stamp out any independence movement.
It was widely proclaimed in Chinese media last month that Tibet's new governor, Padma Choling -- an ethnic Tibetan -- would "oppose all attempts at succession" and put national unity as a top priority.
Choling, 58 and former vice chairman of the Tibetan regional government since 2003, spent 17 years in the Chinese army before entering politics in 1986. He replaced Qiangba Puncog, 63, who was the eighth person to hold the governorship since the Tibet Autonomous Region was founded in 1965.
Qiangba appeared to lose his grip on internal dissent in March 2008. Street marches led by Buddhist monks protesting against China's rule turned violent and spread across Tibet. Beijing's official body count was 19, but Tibetan exiles said up to 100 were likely killed by Chinese police and military forces.
In his speech to the press, Choling emphasized the importance of improving people's welfare and maintaining social stability among all the ethnic groups in Tibet. He said it was a "heavy responsibility" being governor, but "I have the determination and confidence to live up to everyone's expectations."
Chinese media feed a staple diet of stories to ordinary Tibetans reminding them that life is much better under communist rule. Before 1959 the majority of people were serfs beholden to aristocrats and landowners, including the Dalai Lama.
Last March Xinhua ran a special report on "serfs' emancipation day" explaining why the Dalai Lama can't represent all Tibetans. Huo Wei, professor of Tibetology at Sichuan University, argued that Tibetans are as Chinese as the Hans who make up the majority of China's population.
In a divide-and-rule tactic, Huo also said that Tibetan Buddhism is an amalgamation of several denominations, with the Dalai Lama being one of the two living Buddhas.
"The other being the Panchen Lama of the Gelugpa sect, the largest among Tibetan Buddhists. This, coupled with the fact that the Dalai Lama never ruled over all the areas where ethnic Tibetans are settled, makes him ineligible to represent the entire gamut of Tibetan Buddhism and ethnic Tibetans."
Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama, whose flowing saffron robes are his trademark even during interviews in the West, is scheduled to visit two U.S. colleges later this month. He will be at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Fla., on Feb. 23, his first visit there since 2004, and at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton on Feb. 24.
Despite China's open criticism in the media of the Dalai Lama, there are at least discussions between the monk's representatives and communist officials so he can "correct his mistakes," said Zhu.
But even Zhu has his moments of respect for his adversary. In the Xinhua news agency report, Zhu was asked if Beijing would find a solution to the Tibet issue more difficult after the Dalai Lama's death.
"It is not polite in China to talk about the possibility of a 75-year-old man passing away. We hope he can live a long life."