President George W. Bush defended on Wednesday his plan to appear at an award ceremony for the Dalai Lama in the face of Chinese objections and urged Beijing to open talks with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader China views as a separatist.
The Dalai Lama is set to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the country's highest civilian honor, by the U.S. Congress in an award China angrily denounced as a "farce" that would hurt relations between Beijing and Washington.
Bush, who will attend the ceremony on Capitol Hill in the first public appearance by a U.S. president with the Dalai Lama, said he was going because he supported religious freedom and admired the Tibetan monk and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
"I have consistently told the Chinese that religious freedom is in their nation's interest," he told a news conference hours before the ceremony.
"I've also told them that I think it's in their interest to meet with the Dalai Lama and will say so at the ceremony today in Congress," he said.
"If they were to sit down with the Dalai Lama, they would find him to be a man of peace and reconciliation," Bush added.
A smiling Dalai Lama emerged from his White House meeting with Bush on Tuesday and shrugged off the Chinese criticism, telling reporters: "That always happens."
In Beijing, atheist China's top religious affairs official condemned the medal award as a "farce" and called on the Dalai Lama to abandon dreams of independence for Tibet.
Tibet has been ruled by China since Communist troops invaded in 1950, and the government deals harshly with Tibetans who press for greater political and religious freedom.
"The protagonist of this farce is the Dalai Lama," Ye Xiaowen, director-general of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, told reporters on Wednesday on the sidelines of the Communist Party's five-yearly conclave.
The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in India since fleeing his predominantly Buddhist homeland in 1959 after a failed uprising against communist rule.
The Dalai Lama, 72, supports a "middle way" approach that advocates autonomy for Tibet within China and greater freedom to practice the region's unique form of Buddhism.
But Chinese officials do not trust him and have accused him of being a separatist. Beijing's rhetoric against the Dalai Lama has been increasing, even though the Chinese government is engaged in a tentative dialogue with his envoys.
In protest at the medal for the Dalai Lama, China pulled out of a meeting this month at which world powers were to discuss the Iranian nuclear situation. It has also canceled an annual human rights dialogue with Germany to show its displeasure over German Chancellor Angela Merkel's September meeting with Tibet's religious leader.
China analysts in Washington said they expected more such retaliatory moves. But some observers say Beijing sometimes uses such spats as a pretext to skip meetings it doesn't want to join anyway, such as human rights talks.
Earlier recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal include first U.S. President George Washington, Mother Teresa, South Africa's Nelson Mandela and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.