President George Bush said today that US relations with China will not be damaged by honouring the Dalai Lama.
Speaking hours before celebrating in Washington the exiled spiritual head of Tibet's Buddhists, Mr Bush said: "I support religious freedom; he supports religious freedom. I want to honour this man."
Since last year, China has pushed the US administration to scrap the award of the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama.
Beijing reviles the Buddhist leader as a Tibetan separatist.
Mr Bush said he explained his reasons for attending the ceremony to Chinese president Hu Jintao and the leadership in Beijing.
He said: "They didn't like it, of course. But I don't think it's going to damage, severely damage, relations. I have consistently told the Chinese that religious freedom is in their nation's interest.
"I've also told them that it's in their interest to meet with the Dalai Lama, and will say so at the ceremony."
The Bush administration took pains to keep a private meeting between the president and the Dalai Lama yesterday from further infuriating China. There was no media access - not even a picture.
Mr Bush wants to ease anger in China, a growing economic and military powerhouse that the US needs to manage nuclear stand-offs with Iran and North Korea.
He also wants to be seen as a champion of religious freedom and human rights.
The Dalai Lama, for his part, seemed unconcerned about China's furious reaction to his half-hour meeting with Mr Bush.
"That always happens," he said with a laugh, speaking outside his hotel.
The Dalai Lama is lauded in much of the world as a figure of moral authority, but Beijing demonises the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and claims he seeks to destroy China's sovereignty by pushing for independence for Tibet.
The Dalai Lama says he wants "real autonomy" for Tibet, not independence.
He is immensely popular in the Himalayan region, which China has ruled with a heavy hand since its communist-led forces invaded in 1951.
He has lived with followers in exile in India since fleeing Chinese soldiers in Tibet in 1959.
The Congressional Gold Medal shows an image of the smiling Dalai Lama, with mountains rising behind him. Across the top, the medal reads "14th Dalai Lama of Tibet".
China has demanded that the US cancel this week's celebrations. Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi in Beijing said the events "seriously wounded the feelings of the Chinese people and interfered with China's internal affairs".
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said: "China is strongly resentful of and resolutely opposes this and has made solemn representation to the US side."
Chinese state media declared today that the US "must be held responsible for the consequences".
"We are not willing to see damage done to relations between the two countries, but this event will certainly cast a shadow over the relations," the official China Daily newspaper said.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Tony Fratto said the US understands China's concerns. But he also said Mr Bush has always attended congressional award presentation ceremonies, has met the Dalai Lama several times before and had no reason not to meet him again.