WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama hosted the Dalai Lama at the White House today, brushing aside China's warning that the talks with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader could further damage strained Sino-U.S. ties.
Raising issues sure to stoke China's ire, Obama used his first presidential meeting with the Dalai Lama to press Beijing, which has faced international criticism for its Tibet policies, to preserve Tibet's identity and protect its people's human rights.
Obama sat down with the Dalai Lama, reviled by Beijing as a dangerous separatist but admired by millions around the world as a man of peace, in the face of wider tensions over U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, Beijing's currency policies and Chinese Internet security.
"The president commended the Dalai Lama's...commitment to nonviolence and his pursuit of dialogue with the Chinese government," the White House said in a written statement after the nearly hour-long meeting.
Obama encouraged China and the Dalai Lama's envoys to keep up efforts to resolve their differences through negotiations, despite recent talks having yielded little progress.
The White House said Obama and the Dalai Lama also "agreed on the importance of a positive and cooperative relationship between the United States and China."
While defying Chinese demands to scrap the talks, the White House took pains to keep the encounter low-key, barring media coverage of the meeting itself, in an apparent bid to placate Beijing.
But after the talks the Dalai Lama, clad in sandals and burgundy robes, spoke to reporters on the White House driveway, saying he had expressed to Obama his admiration for the United States as a "champion of democracy, freedom, human values."
With the two giant economies so deeply intertwined, tensions are considered unlikely to escalate into outright confrontation. The White House expects only limited fallout.
But the Dalai Lama's visit could complicate Obama's efforts to secure China's help on key issues such as imposing tougher sanctions on Iran, resolving the North Korean nuclear standoff and forging a new global accord on climate change.
By going ahead with the meeting over Chinese objections, Obama may be trying to show his resolve against an increasingly assertive Beijing after facing criticism at home for being too soft with China's leaders on his trip there in November.
On the eve of the Dalai Lama's visit, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs insisted the United States and China -- the world's largest and third-biggest economies -- have a "mature relationship" capable of withstanding disagreements.