The State Department said President Barack Obama's decision to put off a meeting with the Dalai Lama until after he visits China next month does not signal a change in U.S. policy on Tibet. The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, who is visiting Washington this week, is expected to meet with the State Department's newly named coordinator for Tibet, Maria Otero, as well as members of Congress.
The Dalai Lama has met with every sitting U.S. leader since former President George H.W. Bush in 1991. The decision by President Obama to put off a meeting with him until after his China visit next month is drawing criticism from some human rights advocates and conservative commentators.
State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters that the department's newly-named Special Coordinator for Tibetan issues, Maria Otero, will meet the Dalai Lama during his Washington visit this week. Kelly confirmed that Mr. Obama does not plan to meet with the Tibetan spiritual leader until later in the year.
"We think - the United States government thinks - that he is a internationally-revered religious and cultural figure," said Ian Kelly. "He's a Nobel Prize laureate. The president has decided that he will meet with the Dalai Lama at a mutually-agreeable time. I think there was an announcement that it would be after his trip to China. As far as further details, I would really have to refer you to the White House."
Asked about a possible policy shift on Tibet, Kelly said he "wouldn't necessarily read anything" into the decision other than the fact that the president will meet with the Dalai Lama, as he put it, "because of our respect for his position".
Kelly said that while the Obama administration sees China as "an important international player" and wants to engage Beijing, it does not try to downplay disagreements with China over human rights, religious freedom and freedom of expression.
He said human rights "is at the center" of the U.S. relationship with China and that he expects Mr. Obama to raise such issues, among others, when he visits Beijing in mid-November after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Singapore.
China sees the Dalai Lama as supporting independence for Tibet, despite his stated advocacy only for autonomy for the region. Last month, Beijing said it firmly opposed meetings between foreign leaders and the Dalai Lama, after he met senior Obama aides in India.
The State Department announced last week that Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, was being given the additional role of coordinator for Tibetan issues.
A written announcement said she would coordinate government policies and programs on Tibetan issues "within the context" of the U.S. bilateral relationship with Beijing.
It said Otero would seek to foster an environment for substantive discussion between the Dalai Lama's representatives and the Chinese government as well as support initiatives to help safeguard Tibet's "unique culture".