WASHINGTON &

The White House vigorously defended President Bush's plan to meet with the Dalai Lama today, brushing aside China's warning that it would damage relations between Washington and Beijing.




Both Bush and members of Congress &

who are presenting him with the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal on Wednesday &

are stirring anger in China by honoring the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet's Buddhists.




"We solemnly demand that the U.S. cancel the extremely wrong arrangements," said Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Beijing. "It seriously violates the norm of international relations and seriously wounded the feelings of the Chinese people and interfered with China's internal affairs."




At the White House, presidential spokesman Tony Fratto said: "We understand the concerns of the Chinese." But he also said Bush always has attended congressional award presentation ceremonies, has met with the Dalai Lama several times before and had no reason not to meet with him again.




"This is a meeting with a spiritual leader. This is not a meeting with a, for example, a head of state," Fratto added.




No media access was to be allowed to the meeting that Bush was having with the Dalai Lama later today in the private residence of the White House.




While the Dalai Lama is lauded in much of the world as a figure of moral authority, Beijing reviles the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and claims he seeks to destroy China's sovereignty by pushing for independence for Tibet, where the Dalai Lama is considered a god-king.




The Dalai Lama's special envoy, Lodi Gyari, said earlier that the president of the United States standing side by side with the Dalai Lama at the ceremony would send a clear message that "people do care about Tibet. We have not been forgotten."




"I have no doubt this will give tremendous encouragement and hope to the Tibetan people," he told reporters ahead of the visit. It also "sends a powerful message to China that the Dalai Lama is not going to go away."




The Dalai Lama says he wants "real autonomy," not independence, for Tibet. But China demonizes the spiritual leader and believes the United States is honoring a separatist. The Dalai Lama's U.S. visit comes as China is holding its important Communist Party congress.




Chinese diplomats have worked doggedly since the congressional award was voted on last year to get the ceremony and meeting with Bush scrapped and to "correct this mistake," Wang Baodong, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said in an interview.




A U.S. State Department official said Monday that China was protesting U.S. honors for the Dalai Lama by pulling out of an international strategy session on Iran sought by the United States and planned for Wednesday.




China objected to participating in the meeting on the day that the Buddhist leader is to receive the congressional honor, said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe another country's motives.




Wang Baodong, a Chinese Embassy spokesman here, did not directly dispute the U.S. depiction but said that the date for the Iran meeting was "not suitable" for the Chinese delegation.




The State Department also played down the visit. Spokesman Tom Casey said this week's events are unlikely "to change the basic shape and structure of U.S.-Chinese relations."




Congress has long championed the Dalai Lama; lawmakers also regularly criticize Beijing for human rights abuses and a massive military buildup and claim that China ignores abuse by unsavory foreign regimes in Sudan and Myanmar in its pursuit of energy and business deals.




The Bush administration also finds fault with China but is usually more measured as it seeks to manage a booming trade relationship and a desire to enlist Chinese cooperation on nuclear standoffs with North Korea and Iran.




Analysts say Bush's decision to attend the public congressional ceremony reflects his concern over the situation in Tibet.




Judith Shapiro, a China author and professor at American University, says the visit is "not going to profoundly affect ties in either direction. China needs the U.S., the U.S. needs China, and issues like Tibet are a bit of a sideshow to the basic relationship."




The Dalai Lama is immensely popular in Tibet, which China has ruled with a heavy hand since its communist-led forces invaded in 1951. He has been based in India since fleeing his Himalayan homeland in 1959 amid a failed uprising against Chinese rule.