The president doesn't want to appear to be appeasing China, experts say.
The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, political irritant to Beijing, is being honored in Washington this week as never before.
It's not unusual that he will talk with President Bush in the White House residence. After all, he's visited with Mr. Bush three times.
But on Oct. 18 congressional leaders will present him with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor lawmakers can award. And Bush will attend the ceremony – subtly raising the Dalai Lama's status in terms of diplomatic protocol.
The importance of the move can be seen by the reaction of Chinese officials, who see Tibet as a renegade province. They're furious.
"They don't give this medal to just anybody," says Charles Freeman, China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's a big deal."
However, it is unlikely that the Bush administration is embracing the Dalai Lama as a means of punishing Beijing in some manner, says Mr. Freeman.
After all, it was Congress that voted to give the Dalai Lama the medal.
Bush officials probably felt that if they avoided the ceremony it would appear they were appeasing China, which has ruled Tibet with a heavy hand since 1951, says Freeman.
"This is simply a card he feels he has to play," says Freeman. "Unfortunately, Chinese political reaction tends to be at only one decibel level: high."
In the days leading up the Dalai Lama's Washington visit, Chinese officials have branded his improved welcome as interference in China's internal affairs and warned that it will have an "extremely serious impact" on US-China relations.