Australia yesterday brushed off threats by China over a visit by the Dalai Lama and called on Beijing to respect Canberra's political system.
China warned on Tuesday that relations between the two countries could be harmed by the Tibetan spiritual leader's 10-day visit and a planned meeting with Australian Prime Minister John Howard.
China is a major trading partner for Australia, with its insatiable demand for energy fueling a mining boom in the nation, but Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the Dalai Lama would never be denied a visa.
"China has a very different political system to Australia's, but I'd ask the Chinese to respect the way our culture and our political system works," he told Sky News TV.
"This is one of the world's great liberal democracies and someone like the Dalai Lama would always be able to come to Australia," he said.
Downer made a point, however, of stressing that the Nobel Peace Prize winner was viewed in Australia as a religious leader, not a politician.
The 71-year-old Dalai Lama has led a Tibetan government-in-exile in India since 1959 after fleeing a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
He is accused by Beijing of being a "splittist" who seeks independence for Tibet, but says he is simply seeking a degree of autonomy for his homeland, which China has ruled since sending in troops to "liberate" the region in 1951.
"Obviously while he's in our country we'll make up our own minds who meets with him but in doing that we greet him as a religious leader," Downer said.
"It has no implications for our views about Chinese sovereignty over Tibet or other political issues." he said.
Australia accepted that Tibet was part of China, he said.
"We obviously want China to adhere to international norms of human rights in Tibet, we want the traditional culture of Tibet to be respected and retained and beyond that I reiterate we are happy for Tibet to be part of China," he said.
Downer said he could "comfort" Beijing with an assurance that the Dalai Lama was not using Australia as a platform to argue for an independent Tibet.
Relations with China were strong and of mutual benefit, he said when asked if the visit would damage ties with Beijing.
"These decisions are a matter for them, but I would have thought it was in both Australia and China's best interest to recognize this visit for what it is -- which is a visit by a religious leader," he said.
Meanwhile, Australian Trade Minister Warren Truss said he was confident the controversy over the visit would not affect negotiations over a free trade agreement with China.
"I'm confident that our relationship is firm and solid and we will be able to negotiate with China to achieve a satisfactory outcome and that these meetings will not be a permanent impediment," he said.
The Dalai Lama goes on to New Zealand next week, where the government has refused to say whether Prime Minister Helen Clark will meet him.
"I'm still considering next week's diary," Clark told reporters yesterday during a visit to Brisbane in Australia.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters will meet the Dalai Lama next Tuesday in a private capacity rather than as a minister, his spokesman said. The meeting will not be held in Peters' ministerial office.
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