WASHINGTON — The Dalai Lama began a three-day visit to Washington on Monday as the Clinton Administration struggled to prevent Tibet from becoming a new sore spot between the United States and China in the same fashion that Taiwan did earlier this year.
Even before he arrived here, Chinese officials had admonished the Administration privately not to give the Tibetan too high a profile. "You would be correct in assuming we heard from [Chinese officials] on the subject," admitted one U.S. official. "They warned us that this is a political matter."
In the face of similar Chinese warnings in the past, both former President George Bush and President Clinton have met with the Dalai Lama in the White House--paying homage to his personal stature and his role as a religious leader of Tibetan Buddhism. The official U.S. position is that Tibet is part of Chinese territory.
The Dalai Lama, who fled to India from his homeland in 1959 after an unsuccessful revolt in Tibet against Chinese rule, probably will win entree to the White House again this year. However, his visit is especially sensitive because the politics in Washington, and between the Administration and China, have both changed.
On Capitol Hill, the Republican Congress is now considering legislation for the first time that would require the United States to appoint a special envoy for Tibetan issues. The envoy, who would have ambassadorial rank, would be based in Washington, not in Tibet or in India, where the Dalai Lama lives.
The Administration opposes this provision, which is attached to a bill reorganizing the State Department. The Dalai Lama defended the legislation Monday, claiming that such an appointment would help bring about negotiations between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama's representatives.
The White House also appears to be especially cautious about the Dalai Lama's visit because of the Administration's problems with China earlier this year involving Taiwan.
In May, Congress enacted a resolution, initially opposed by the Administration, calling on the President to permit Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui to make an unprecedented U.S. visit. In June, Lee attended an alumni reunion in Upstate New York.