WASHINGTON – The Bush administration has taken pains to keep a private meeting between President Bush and the Dalai Lama from further infuriating China, which reviles the Buddhist leader: no media access, not even a handout photo.
There was to be little subtlety for plans Wednesday, however, when Bush and America's most powerful lawmakers host an elaborate public ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda to award the exiled spiritual head of Tibet's Buddhists with Congress' highest civilian award.
It is a delicate bit of diplomatic balancing. Bush wants to ease anger in China, a growing economic and military powerhouse that the United States needs to manage nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea. He also wants to be seen as a champion of religious freedom and human rights.
The Dalai Lama, for his part, seemed unconcerned about China's furious reaction to his half-hour meeting Tuesday with Bush in the White House and the presentation Wednesday of the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal.
"That always happens," he said with a laugh, speaking to reporters gathered outside his hotel.
The White House played down the meeting with Bush in the presidential residence section of the White House and dismissed China's warning that this week's events would damage relations between Washington and Beijing.
The Dalai Lama is lauded in much of the world as a figure of moral authority, but Beijing demonizes the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and claims he seeks to destroy China's sovereignty by pushing for independence for Tibet.
The Dalai Lama says he wants "real autonomy" for Tibet, not independence. He is immensely popular in the Himalayan region, which China has ruled with a heavy hand since its communist-led forces invaded in 1951. He has lived with followers in exile in India since fleeing Chinese soldiers in Tibet in 1959.
China has demanded that the United States cancel this week's celebrations. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Beijing said the events "seriously wounded the feelings of the Chinese people and interfered with China's internal affairs."
"China is strongly resentful of and resolutely opposes this and has made solemn representation to the U.S. side," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in a comment carried Wednesday by the official Xinhua News Agency.
"We seriously urged the U.S. side to correct such wrong doing and stop interfering in China's internal affairs in any forms," Liu said.
Chinese state media declared earlier Wednesday the U.S. "must be held responsible for the consequences."
"We are not willing to see damage done to relations between the two countries, but this event will certainly cast a shadow over the relations," the official China Daily newspaper said in an unsigned editorial.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Tony Fratto said the United States understands China's concerns. But he also said Bush always has attended congressional award presentation ceremonies, has met with the Dalai Lama several times before and had no reason not to meet with him again.
No media access was allowed to Bush's meeting Tuesday. In a departure from normal procedure, the administration released no photos of the meeting either — a testament to the sensitivity of the matter.
"We in no way want to stir the pot and make China feel that we are poking a stick in their eye for a country that we have a lot of relationships with on a variety of issues," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "And this might be one thing that we can do. But I don't believe that that's going to soothe the concerns in China."
U.S. lawmakers regularly criticize Beijing for human rights abuses and a massive military buildup and claim that China ignores abuse by unsavory foreign governments in Sudan and Myanmar in its pursuit of energy and business deals.
The Bush administration also finds fault with China but is usually more measured as it seeks to manage a booming trade relationship and a desire to enlist Chinese cooperation in world affairs.