Obama to meet Dalai Lama on Feb 18: White House

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WASHINGTON - The White House announced on Thursday that President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama would meet on February 18, despite China's warning that such talks could hurt already-strained Sino-U.S. relations.

Obama's meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader is likely to set off a new round of sniping from Beijing, which has seen tensions with Washington rise over issues ranging from trade to currency to planned U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

The president looks forward to engaging in a constructive dialogue with the Dalai Lama, said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Obama told China's leaders during a visit to Beijing in November of his intention to meet the Dalai Lama, and the administration had made clear in recent days that it would shrug off Chinese opposition and go ahead with the talks.

China has become increasingly vocal in opposing meetings between foreign leaders and the Dalai Lama, who Beijing deems a dangerous separatist.

Strains over the Dalai Lama meeting and other issues have raised worries that China might retaliate by obstructing U.S. efforts in other areas, such as imposing tougher sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

But Gibbs insisted that Washington and Beijing -- the world's largest and third-biggest economies -- have a mature enough relationship to find common ground on issues of international concern despite disagreements on other matters.

Beijing is already irate over U.S. proposals last week to sell $6.4 billion of weapons to Taiwan, the island that China treats as an illegitimate breakaway province.

The United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 but Washington remains Taiwan's biggest backer and is obliged by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to help in the island's defense.

Adding to tensions, Obama vowed last week to address currency problems with Beijing and to get much tougher with it on trade to ensure U.S. goods do not face a competitive disadvantage.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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