- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - A closely watched visit is set to take place in October, when a frail, 74-year-old Buddhist monk seeks an audience with President Barack Obama.

Obama must make a delicate calculation as he considers a meeting with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet’s Buddhists, seen by his supporters as a symbol of peace but vilified by China as a “wolf in monk’s robes” who seeks to split Tibet from the rest of China.

Whatever Obama decides about the visit will spark anger.

Meeting with the Dalai Lama, as every president since George H.W. Bush has done, would infuriate China, whose help the United States sees as crucial to global economic recovery efforts and dealing with nuclear standoffs in North Korea and Iran.

Activists would seize on a White House visit for the Nobel Peace laureate as a powerful message to Tibetans and others struggling for human rights around the world.

The Obama administration, in the months ahead, will weigh its desire to secure crucial Chinese cooperation on global crises with its worries that China is abusing the rights of Tibetans.

The Dalai Lama is celebrated in much of the world as a figure of moral authority. In response to China’s claims that he seeks Tibetan independence, the Dalai Lama has said repeatedly that he wants only “real autonomy” for Tibet.

The Dalai Lama’s supporters expect Obama will continue the long-standing U.S. presidential tradition of meeting with the monk.

Obama’s administration, however, has faced criticism that a growing emphasis on U.S-Chinese economic and diplomatic cooperation has fueled reluctance to confront the Chinese on sensitive human rights and trade issues.

Last Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner would not cite China as a country that manipulates its currency to gain unfair trade advantages, despite American claims that the undervalued Chinese currency is the biggest cause for the huge trade deficit the United States runs with China.

In February, the Obama administration delighted China when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said during her trip to Beijing that the United States would not let its human rights concerns interfere with cooperation with Beijing.

Dennis Wilder, who served as President George W. Bush’s senior Asia adviser, said some of Obama’s economic advisers, eager to get more Chinese cooperation on the financial meltdown, might be tempted to “lower the profile” of a Dalai Lama meeting.

Both Bush’s father and President Bill Clinton met unofficially with the Dalai Lama, each “dropping in” as the monk visited with a senior adviser.

The second President Bush met with the Dalai Lama in the private residences of the White House, avoiding the more public Oval Office. But he broke with tradition when, in an elaborate public ceremony, he presented the Dalai Lama with the U.S. Congress’ highest civilian honor in 2007, calling the monk a “universal symbol of peace and tolerance.”

China was outraged and said the United States had “gravely undermined” relations.

Indeed, China’s reaction is unambiguous when foreign leaders meet with the Dalai Lama. China canceled a major summit with the European Union when French President Nicolas Sarkozy met last year with the Dalai Lama.

China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said last month that shunning the Dalai Lama should be considered one of the “basic principles of international relations.”

As October approaches, U.S. officials will take a close look at the state of relations with China. Based on those ties, the administration will then decide whether Obama can risk continuing the tradition of meeting with the Dalai Lama and, if so, what sort of meeting to grant the monk.

China will oppose any contact between Obama and the Dalai Lama. But Douglas Paal, a former senior Asia adviser for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said, “How badly they react to a meeting depends on what the overall state relations are in.”

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