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Australian PM Defends Dalai Lama Visit

Australian Prime Minister John Howard is defending a decision to allow the Dalai Lama to visit Australia. Mr. Howard is on a trade mission to China, which objects to the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader's visit.

Prime Minister John Howard told an audience at the Communist Party's main research institute in Beijing that Australia's democratic philosophy means people are welcome regardless of their political or religious outlook. "It is wholly consistent with the Australian tradition that somebody like the Dalai Lama would be able to visit our country," he said. "His visit is not against the background, in our eyes, of illegality or impropriety, and he comes as a spiritual leader. And he comes as a person who does not offer any offense to the laws of Australia."

China's government regularly attacks the Dalai Lama as plotting to split Tibet from Chinese control. China's Foreign Ministry recently labeled the Dalai Lama a former "slave owner" and accused him of running Tibet before the Chinese take over in a feudal and brutal fashion.

Beijing protests any invitation for the Dalai Lama to visit foreign nations and urged Australian officials not to meet with him.

But Tuesday, Australia's government said senior officials would discuss the human-rights situation in Tibet with the Dalai Lama. He is visiting Australia at the same time as Prime Minister Howard's trip to China. The Dalai Lama's supporters accused Mr. Howard of scheduling his China trip to dodge meetings with the Tibetan leader.

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet after a failed revolt against communist rule in 1959. He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his campaign for greater autonomy for his mountain homeland. Human-rights groups and foreign governments often accuse China of a systematic pattern of human rights abuses in Tibet and elsewhere. Following his comments on the Dalai Lama and other topics, Mr. Howard met with Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, and is scheduled Thursday to meet President Jiang Zemin.

Mr. Howard says he is using these meetings with top Chinese officials to make a case for an Australian bid to provide a huge quantity of liquefied natural gas to China. He conceded that competitors might have a lower price, but said Australia's political stability guarantees a long term, secure supply of gas. He says he expects a decision "fairly soon" on the giant energy contract.

Mr. Howard wraps up his visit to China on Thursday.