Ananth Krishnan

BEIJING: China has voiced its strong opposition to the United States President Barack Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama, warning it had “seriously damaged” Sino-U.S. ties.

Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai on Friday summoned U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman in Beijing, lodging “a solemn representation” to express China's displeasure at the U.S. “obstinately” arranging the meeting.

“The U.S. has grossly interfered in China's internal affairs, gravely hurt the Chinese people's national sentiments and seriously damaged Sino-U.S. ties,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu.

Mr. Ma's is the fourth strongly-worded statement the Chinese government has issued in recent weeks over Thursday's meeting, warning Mr. Obama that holding talks with the exiled Tibetan religious leader would damage the two countries' relationship.

Political analysts in Beijing have dubbed this week's sparring “the Dalai round of tensions” — only the latest in a growing list of spats the new year has seen, including Chinese anger over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, Washington criticising China's valuation of its currency and the cyber-attacks on Google, which the U.S. says originated from China.

Last month, China suspended military exchanges with the U.S. following Washington's announcement of a $6.4-billion arms sale to Taiwan, including Patriot missiles and Black Hawk helicopters. In a stronger-than-usual response to the arms sales, China also imposed sanctions on U.S. companies involved in deals with Taiwan.

“No long-term effects”

Officials in Beijing, however, privately underplay the long-term impact of the Tibetan religious leader's meeting on ties with Washington. While they accept it has further strained an already tense atmosphere, they point to the interdependence between the two countries on a range of issues, from trade to international matters such as nuclear proliferation and North Korea, to stress that overall engagement will continue unaffected.

On Thursday, China granted permission for the USS Nimitz, the American aircraft carrier, to dock in Hong Kong, amid concerns the visit would be stopped in light of the recent tensions. It was a signal, analysts said, that engagement would continue as before.

U.S. officials defended Thursday's meeting with the Dalai Lama, stressing that Mr. Obama met him only in the context of his being “an internationally respected religious leader”.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Mr. Obama “stated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity and the protection of human rights for Tibetans”, in their 70-minute meeting.

He said: “We think we have a mature enough relationship with the Chinese that we can agree on mutual interests, but also have a mature enough relationship that we know the two countries are not always going to agree on everything.”

The Dalai Lama reiterated after Thursday's meeting that he was “fully committed” for Tibet to remain a part of China, but sought “meaningful autonomy”. The Tibetan leader blames the ruling Communist Party for eroding the ethnic identity as well as religious freedom of Tibetans in China.

China accuses the Tibetan leader of being a “splittist”, and regards any country's engagement with the Dalai Lama as interference in its internal affairs. “The Dalai Lama's words and deeds have shown that he is not a pure religious figure, but a political exile who has all along been engaged in separatist activities under the pretext of religion,” said Mr. Ma.