By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON - A top aide to Barack Obama denied on Wednesday the U.S. president snubbed the Dalai Lama or retreated on human rights in China by delaying a meeting with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader earlier this month.
Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett pushed back against Obama's critics who accused him of bowing to Chinese pressure when he became the first president in 18 years to refuse to see the Dalai Lama on a visit to Washington.
"It is not a signal of any lack of commitment to human rights," Jarrett said in an interview with Reuters. "That's a ridiculous conclusion to draw."
Obama opted to hold off on meeting the Dalai Lama until after a Beijing summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao scheduled for mid-November.
Asked whether that decision was made with an eye to Chinese sensitivities about Tibet, Jarrett said, "That's a fair point to make."
Critics charged that Obama had sacrificed human rights concerns to curry favor with the China, which accuses the 74-year-old Buddhist monk of seeking to separate Tibet from China. Beijing has always protested loudly against the Dalai Lama's White House visits.
The decision not to meet the Tibetan leader was made amid the Obama administration's efforts to improve U.S.-China relations on issues from global warming and international finance to reigning in North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
The controversy underscored Obama's dilemma in dealing with China, a growing power and the biggest holder of U.S. debt.
Human rights groups and opposition Republicans have accused Obama of being soft on China.
"There's no stronger advocate for human rights than President Obama," said Jarrett, who led a U.S. delegation on a visit to northern India in September to see the Dalai Lama to discuss ways to resolve problems of the Tibetan people.
She said Obama had invited the Dalai Lama to a White House meeting "as early as December" and will bring up Tibet's plight in his talks with Hu next month.
"It's a very important relationship and we think that we can certainly have both," Jarrett said. "The president has a relationship with the Dalai Lama. He has a relationship with the Chinese."
The president and the Buddhist monk have one thing in common: they both are Nobel Peace Prize laureates.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Anthony Boadle)