The Dalai Lama talks at a media conference in Melbourne Friday, June 8, 2007. The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader is in Australia for a two-week visit./Andrew Brownbill/AP Photo
MELBOURNE, Australia: The Dalai Lama warned Friday that Tibetan culture could be "finished" in 15 years if China does not allow the region to govern itself.
"Our approach is not seeking independence," the exiled spiritual leader told reporters in Melbourne. "We are seeking genuine autonomy to preserve Tibetan culture, Tibetan language and the Tibetan environment."
Wearing his trademark gold and maroon robes, the 71-year-old Dalai Lama said many Tibetans were growing impatient with the lack of progress in talks with China.
"If the present situation is the same in 15 years then I think Tibet is finished," he said.
The Dalai Lama is set to visit Australia's capital, Canberra, later this month, a prospect that prompted China's foreign ministry to warn Australian officials against engaging the Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Several Australian leaders have flip-flopped over whether to meet with the Dalai Lama, with some saying it was not worth upsetting Australia's lucrative trade relationship with China.
Prime Minister John Howard has refused to announce whether he will meet with the exiled leader, saying only that he was checking his schedule.
The Dalai Lama said it was "no problem" if Howard did not wish to meet with him.
"China is a very, very important country, and trade with China is certainly very important," he said. "So there's no question that is why the prime minister finds it a little difficult - that's understandable."
China says it has ruled Tibet for centuries, although many Tibetans say their homeland was essentially an independent state for most of that time. Chinese communist troops occupied Tibet in 1951, and Beijing continues to rule the region with a heavy hand. It regularly expresses displeasure when foreign leaders meet with the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in 1959 following a failed uprising, is one of the figures most reviled by the Chinese leadership, which has accused him of waging a clandestine campaign for formal independence.