Prime Minister Julia Gillard has ruled out meeting the Dalai Lama this week in a move that will please China, Australia's most important trading partner, and rile a crucial government supporter, the Greens party.
Gillard ended speculation on whether she would meet the Tibetan spiritual leader when he visits Canberra, the national capital, on Tuesday.
"Australian prime ministers have not met the Dalai Lama on every occasion he has visited Australia," her office said in a statement Monday.
Instead, a government lawmaker will meet privately with the 75-year-old Buddhist monk, it said. It did not name the lawmaker.
"Given the frequency of his travel to Australia, the government believes the current arrangements are appropriate," the statement said.
Previous Australian prime ministers have held unofficial meetings with the spiritual leader, but even those low-key talks have irked China, which buys vast quantities of Australian raw materials including iron ore, coal and natural gas.
Beijing reviles the Dalai Lama and frequently denounces him, alleging that he wants independence for Tibet.
Gillard was Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's deputy when the Dalai Lama last came to Australia in 2008. Both Rudd and Gillard were then overseas, so the exiled Nobel Peace Prize winner met Sen. Chris Evans, who was the center-left government's third highest ranking lawmaker and acting prime minister.
Gillard's snub surprised some observers. Opposition leader Tony Abbott, whose conservative coalition appears more popular than her government in recent opinion polls, plans to meet the Dalai Lama during his 11-day Australian visit which began last Thursday.
Australian National University political scientist Brett Bowden suspects Gillard is attempting to demonstrate her independence from the Greens party, whose support her Labor Party relies on to govern.
The opposition accuses Gillard of being a puppet of Greens leader Sen. Bob Brown.
"She's been trying get arms lengths from the Greens, but plenty of people are meeting the Dalai Lama against China's objections including (President Barack) Obama," Bowden said.
Brown issued a statement earlier Monday saying he was "working hard to urge Prime Minister Gillard to meet his holiness."
"There will be a great feeling of pleasure around Australia if she takes 10 minutes off to do just that," Brown said.
Conservative Prime Minister John Howard was the last Australian leader to meet Tibetan Buddhism's highest spiritual authority in 2007.
The Dalai Lama recently relinquished his political authority over Tibetans, but remains their spiritual leader.