China said Thursday it was perplexed why foreign leaders continue to meet the Dalai Lama despite its protests, but that one reason was because they were being deceived by the Buddhist monk.

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 says he seeks to destroy China's sovereignty by pushing for independence for Tibet.

"The question is very hard for us to understand," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said when asked why leaders of the U.S., Canada and Germany have met the Dalai Lama recently.

"That political exile, so many countries are interested in him. I think there are two reasons," Liu said at a regular news briefing. "First is that they are deceived by him. Second reason (is) because maybe they have something they want to do to China." He did not elaborate.

China routinely criticizes visits abroad by the Dalai Lama, saying foreign governments are interfering in its internal affairs by hosting the 72-year-old monk.

The comments followed reports by Italian news agencies that Pope Benedict XVI plans to meet the Dalai Lama in a Vatican audience in December.

Such a meeting would likely add a chill to the Vatican's relations with China, already strained over issues such as Taiwan and Beijing's tight control over religion.

Liu said he hoped the Vatican would "not do anything to hurt the feelings of the Chinese people."

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.

The Dalai Lama's recent meetings with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President George W. Bush have drawn rebukes from Beijing.

China said the U.S. "gravely undermined" relations after its Congress presented the Tibetan leader with its highest civilian honor last month.

However, relations did not appear to have actually suffered significantly. Liu also said Thursday that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was visiting China next week and the two-day stop should boost trust between the countries' militaries.