Obama greeted the Dalai Lama while the Tibetan spiritual leader and fellow Nobel laureate was in the U.S. on a speaking tour. The meeting was closed to photographers, and, unlike during some previous visits, the Dalai Lama departed the White House without speaking to reporters.
When the White House announced the meeting late Thursday, China responded almost immediately, urging Obama to cancel it in what has become something of a diplomatic ritual whenever the president meets with the exiled Buddhist monk. In a biting statement, China's government accused Obama of letting the Dalai Lama use the White House to promote anti-Chinese activities.
"The U.S. leader's planned meeting with Dalai is a gross interference in China's domestic politics," said Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China's Foreign Ministry. "It is a severe violation of the principles of international relations. It will inflict grave damages upon the China-U.S. relationship."
Beijing has often protested when world leaders have granted audiences to the Dalai Lama, including when Obama met with him in 2010 and again in 2011. Chinese officials denounce the Dalai Lama as a separatist responsible for instigating self-immolations by Tibetans inside China, but he is widely respected around the world for his advocacy of peace and tolerance.
Obama hosted the Dalai Lama in the White House's Map Room, rather than the Oval Office, where the president traditionally brings a visiting leader for a round of photographs. The private meeting, closed to reporters despite media requests for access, suggested an attempt to avoid the appearance of a formal meeting between two heads of state.
In announcing the event, the White House said Obama was meeting with the Dalai Lama in the visitor's capacity as a cultural and religious leader. As if to indicate a reaction had been expected, officials reiterated that the U.S. recognizes Tibet as part of China and doesn't support Tibetan independence.
"The United States supports the Dalai Lama's 'Middle Way' approach of neither assimilation nor independence for Tibetans in China," said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House's National Security Council. She added that presidents of both parties have met with the Dalai Lama for decades.
At the same time, officials said they were concerned about tensions and deteriorating human rights in China's Tibetan areas, urging Beijing to resume talks with the Dalai Lama or his followers without preconditions.
China, in its response to the meeting, said it had relayed its concerns formally to the U.S. and urged Washington to treat them seriously. China bitterly opposes the Dalai Lama's quest for greater Tibetan autonomy and is wary of Obama's efforts to increase U.S. influence in the region.
Relations between the U.S. and China are already on edge over Beijing's increasingly aggressive steps to assert itself in the region, including in territorial disputes with its smaller neighbors. China's emergence as a leading global economic and military power has strained ties with Washington, and the two have also clashed over cybertheft and human rights.
A frequent visitor to the U.S., the Dalai Lama has lived in exile in northern India since fleeing China in 1959.
Zhao Liang in Beijing contributed to this report.