No video cameras or reporters were allowed into the White House Map Room on Wednesday to document the fourth meeting between Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and President Barack Obama.
But afterward a photo emerged, first on the Dalai Lama's Instagram account and then released by the White House, of the two men facing each other, locked in an embrace that spoke volumes about the warmth of their relationship.
In an interview with VOA, Myles Caggins, National Security Council spokesman for Asia, said the meeting was personal in nature.
"In this case, personal because the president, as he hosted the Dalai Lama in the Map Room of the residence, greets him as an individual who is a leader, who is internationally recognized as a leader for religion and a cultural leader of Tibet. But in contrast, an official visit or a state visit would include the normal trappings of the parade on the South Lawn, potentially a meeting in the Oval Office and a state dinner, potentially."
Earlier, China warned Obama against meeting with the Dalai Lama, saying it could damage mutual trust. China sees the Dalai Lama as a dangerous separatist.
Obama refers to the Dalai Lama as "a good friend." But China fears these meetings between the two send the wrong message to Tibetans.
"If such meeting goes through, it will send a wrong signal to the separatist forces seeking Tibet independence, and it will damage mutual trust and cooperation," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters Wednesday in Beijing.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the president has "warm personal feelings" for the Dalai Lama, and thanked him for his letter of condolences to the families of those hurt and killed in Sunday's mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub. Earnest said the president also appreciated the spiritual leader's commitment to nonviolence and his efforts to reduce the impact of climate change.
White House statement
After the meeting, the White House released a statement saying: "The president and the Dalai Lama discussed the situation for Tibetans in the People's Republic of China, and the president emphasized his strong support for the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic traditions and the equal protection of human rights of Tibetans in China. The president lauded the Dalai Lama's commitment to peace and nonviolence, and expressed support for the Dalai Lama's ‘Middle Way’ approach."
The Dalai Lama has advocated for a middle way — not asking for independence from China for Tibet, but for more autonomy.
Asked about more autonomy for Tibet, NSC spokesman Caggins told VOA that the U.S. position on China has not changed.
"During the meeting, it is important to note that the president reiterated the U.S. position that Tibet is a part of China and that the United States does not support Tibetan independence. But both leaders, the president and the Dalai Lama, agreed that it is important for the United States and China to have a constructive and productive relationship. It is also important that the Dalai Lama and his representatives have a fruitful dialogue with Chinese authorities."
But dialogue between the Dalai Lama and China's central government stopped in 2010. Tibetans re-elected their prime minister in May, and they maintain hope that talks with China to give Tibet more autonomy can continue.