Following the same diplomatic script he has in the past, President Clinton dropped in on a White House meeting between Vice President Al Gore and the Dalai Lama and told the exiled Tibetan leader that he would urge China to open a dialogue with him.
The president’s decision to see the Dalai Lama but not grant him a formal presidential level meeting was intended to demonstrate concern for Tibet without igniting new tensions with China.
Clinton sat in on the meeting for 20 minutes. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who two years ago made a forceful speech on human rights while at a women’s conference in Beijing, also met with the Dalai Lama for about 45 minutes in the White House residence.
The visit came at a sensitive time in Washington’s relations with Beijing, which warned against such a meeting. Last week, Clinton met with a prominent Hong Kong democratic politician, Martin Lee, and warned China to live up to its agreement to protect Hong Kong’s economic, political and civil liberties after the British colony returns to Chinese sovereignty on July 1. China’s foreign minister, Qian Qichen, is to visit Washington early next week and is expected to meet with Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
China insists that Tibet is part of China, and the Clinton administration supports that view, although it has criticized China for violating human rights in Tibet. The White House said in a statement on Wednesday that the United States “continues to urge high-level talks between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama or his representatives to resolve differences.”
The White House also said that Clinton “expressed his continuing concern for the preservation of Tibetan religion and culture.”
Beijing refuses to hold talks with the Dalai Lama, accusing him of seeking to lead an independence movement. Before meeting with Clinton, the Dalai Lama told reporters: “We tried to make very clear to the Chinese government we are seeking self-rule, not independence.”
In a preview of the debate likely later this year when the Clinton administration seeks to renew favorable trade status for China, several members of Congress on Wednesday criticized Clinton for not granting the Dalai Lama a formal meeting.