WASHINGTON – Tibet's exiled religious leader, the Dalai Lama, brushed aside by U.S. President Barack Obama in favor of communist China, was saluted at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday for his work for human rights.

The presentation ceremony underscored Obama's dilemma in dealing with China, a growing power and the biggest holder of U.S. debt, and the Dalai Lama, a self-described simple Buddhist monk who Beijing accuses of seeking to separate Tibet from China.

For the first time in 18 years, the Dalai Lama is visiting Washington this week without stopping by to see the U.S. president.

The decision not to meet the Tibetan leader was made amid efforts to improve U.S.-Chinese relations on issues from stemming global warming to reigning in North Korea's nuclear weapons.

The Dalai Lama received a human rights award named in honor of the late Tom Lantos, a former chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.

In a statement, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, accused Obama of kowtowing to Beijing by refusing to meet with the 74-year-old monk.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi presented the award to the Dalai Lama and warned: Unless we speak out for human rights in China and Tibet, we lose moral authority to speak out for human rights anywhere else in the world.

China sent its troops into Tibet in 1950, prompting the Dalai Lama to go to India to establish a government in exile. Negotiations between China and the Dalai Lama's envoys were suspended last year, provoking violence in Tibet.

The White House said that with the agreement of the Dalai Lama, Obama will not meet with him until after the president's November summit with Chinese leader Hu Jintao.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said: Our relationship with China, having a strong relationship and a good dialogue with them, allows us to talk to them about the cares and concerns of the Tibetan people.

The Dalai Lama, in brief remarks, described the United States as a champion of liberty, freedom, democracy.

You must preserve these principles, he said. That's important.

Republican Senator John McCain, who lost last year's presidential election to Obama, also spoke at the ceremony, saying: The Dalai Lama has spent his life in the passionate, tireless and non-violent defense of his people's right to self-determination and dignity.

Katrina Lantos Sweet, president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, noted that when Obama was elected last year as the first black U.S. president, he said, The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.

Sweet, who has called on Obama to meet with the Dalai Lama said, These hopeful words should remind us that we cannot simply standby and wait for the arc to bend. We have a duty to use our power and influence to hasten its trajectory.

(Additional reporting by Toby Zakaria; Editing by Eric Beech)