By Alexandra Hudson
MUNICH, Germany (Reuters) - U.S. Senator John McCain warned China's Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun on Saturday that "the Arab Spring is coming to China" and highlighted the number of Tibetans burning themselves to death in his country.
Zhang, speaking with McCain on a panel at the high-level Munich security conference, dismissed his comments about a looming Chinese Arab Spring as "no more than fantasy" and condemned foreign interference in Chinese internal affairs.
McCain, who ran for president against Barack Obama in 2008, told Zhang in front of an audience of ministers, diplomats and security officials: "It is a matter of concern when Tibetans are burning themselves to death because of the continued repression of the Tibetan people in your country."
"I have said on many occasion and I will say again the Arab Spring is coming to China as well."
During the past year at least 16 Tibetans - most Buddhist monks and nuns - have self-immolated in protests seeking a return of the exiled Dalai Lama and freedom for Tibet.
A self-immolation triggered the unrest which brought down Tunisia's leader and led to copycat protests in other north African states, including Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak was ousted last February.
China has branded the immolators as terrorists and blamed Tibetan separatist forces for fomenting hatred among the people.
McCain, who served in the Vietnam war and was held prisoner by the North Vietnamese, continued: "Knowing your neighbors in the region as I do there is great concern about some of your activities."
Fears centered on the South China Sea, and other repressive actions against citizens who wanted to peacefully demonstrate, he added, as he spoke during a panel on Asia's rise chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
"China is China ... Some people suggest the Arab Spring will come to China, but that is more than a fantasy because the policies and governance of the country have the overwhelming support of the people," Zhang countered.
"In China, a country that was subjected to foreign invasion and occupation for 109 years, the Chinese people are resentful of any kind of lecturing on how China should manage its own affairs."
He added Beijing had made huge achievements in Tibet, expanding life expectancy and education.
McCain responded China would see less interference when it allowed free and fair elections.
"There are certain universal values that we all cherish, and ambitions to achieve those inalienable rights are something the United States is probably must proud of in its entire history."
McCain, who later shook hands with Zhang, told him: "I hope you didn't interpret my remarks as anything other than the advocacy that I and others hold for every nation in the world, including yours."
(Reporting by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Alison Williams)