In an interview with Sydney’s Radio 2UE (John Laws program) on May 17, 2002, Howard denied rumors that he was deliberately steering clear of the Dalai Lama to avoid angering the Chinese government.
The Dalai Lama will arrive in Melbourne on May 18 and be in Australia until May 27, 2002, when he departs for New Zealand.
Reports of Howard avoiding the Dalai Lama have created a major controversy. Sixteen prominent Australians have sent an open letter to the Prime Minister encouraging him to meet with the Dalai Lama, the Australia Tibet Council said. The signatories include Anglican Primate Archbishop Peter Carnley, novelist Tim Winton.
“I’m going to be out of Australia from Sunday,” Howard told the John Laws radio program. “So I’ll be out of Australia until the end of the week but I won’t therefore be meeting him,” he added.
“I did meet him when he was here last time and I understand some others will be meeting him but I won’t be,” Howard said.
China has publicly made clear that they opposed any Australian leaders meeting the Dalai Lama. Responding to a media question on May 14, 2002, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Kong Quan said, “China opposed all forms of invitations to and meetings with the Dalai Lama from government officials of any country or region.”
“They (China) are obviously are sensitive about anybody meeting him,” Howard told the program adding, “But if we were governed by that then I wouldn’t have met him last time.”
Howard had a slightly different tone when addressing Chinese journalists in the Parliament House on May 16, 2002, in preparation for his forthcoming trip to China. When asked to confirm reports of his trying to avoid the Dalai Lama, Howard responded, “Well you don’t meet everybody…”
Howard also had this to say about the Dalai Lama to the Chinese journalists. “Well he’s a spiritual leader. I don’t see every spiritual leader who comes to Australia on every occasion that he or she comes to Australia. I saw him in 1996. There is no particular reason why I should see him on this occasion.”
The Prime Minister also lauded Australia’s human rights dialogue with China some years ago. He told the Chinese media, “We believe that dialogue has worked successfully. We think it is preferable to joining in certain types of resolutions which don’t have any particular practical value. We always advance causes relating to human rights issues that affect Australian citizens and that dialogue has proved to be valuable. We always like to see human rights enhanced and supported and take appropriate opportunities to argue that in international forums and in bilateral exchanges.”
Australia is competing against Indonesia and Qatar for a multi-billion dollar contract with China to supply Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), which will be one of Howard’s priorities during his upcoming trip to China.