When the Dalai Lama came to Washington to be honored by congressional leaders last October, President Barack Obama chose not to meet with him out of an excess of concern that Chinese leaders would be offended in advance of the president's trip to Beijing the following month. The administration did promise a meeting at a later date.
Last week, the president kept that appointment despite China's objections -- and better late than never. Predictably, the Chinese were offended. They oppose any high-level contacts with the exiled Dalai Lama -- he is a living reproach to them, not only a spiritual leader to his people but also a symbol of his country's lost independence to the invading Chinese six decades ago.
When Mr. Obama failed to meet with the Dalai Lama last year, he was criticized from both left and right, including in this column. His caution then seemed hypocritical. As a presidential candidate concerned with human right abuses in Tibet and elsewhere, Mr. Obama had called on President George W. Bush to boycott the opening of the Beijing Olympic Games, which he refused to do. Still, Mr. Bush had met with the Dalai Lama before, as many presidents have done.
To be sure, a diplomatic dance with China must be performed, especially since this county's economic well-being has become dependent, unfortunately, on Chinese forbearance. Provoking the tiger brings its own dangers.
That tension was on display when Mr. Obama hosted the Dalai Lama last Thursday in the White House. They met in the Map Room, not in the Oval Office, with no reporters or photographers present. The Dalai Lama said later he understood and was not offended.
The Chinese occupation of Tibet has long been a fait accompli, but the Chinese should be talking with the Dalai Lama about some non-threatening arrangement that respects both cultures. To that end, presidents should not be bullied by Chinese bluster and should strive to stress the Dalai Lama's continuing importance to his country. Besides, American presidents have the right to meet with whomever they like -- and foreign countries don't hold veto power over that.