WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama will be a few strides from each other at the same ballroom event Thursday, but amid fierce Chinese pressure it's not clear if they will actually meet.
Obama and the Tibetan spiritual leader are slated to attend a high-profile National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, raising the prospect of a first public meeting.
For six decades the breakfast has been a fixture on the US capital's political calendar, but this year the mixture of politics and religion has proven even more toxic.
China accuses the Dalai Lama of seeking to split Tibet from the rest of China, calling him a "wolf in sheep's clothing." It vigorously lobbies against foreign leaders meeting the Dalai Lama "in any form." Accordingly, since becoming president in 2009, Obama has been careful not to be seen in public with his fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Previous meetings have been held behind closed doors and outside the Oval Office to limit the diplomatic fallout and to avoid undermining Obama's "pivot to Asia," a cornerstone of his foreign policy.
Ahead of this potential fourth meeting, the White House has been quick to play down talk of a first - deeply symbolic - public encounter.
"The president will see many religious leaders at the event, but we don't have any specific meeting with the Dalai Lama to announce," said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan.
It is not excluded that they may bump into each other, nor has Washington explicity ruled out the prospect of the pair talking.
The Dalai Lama is not expected to address the gathering and will not be seated at the head table with Obama and other speakers.
But he is expected to be seated close to the dais, making an impromptu greeting possible.
Over 3,000 people are expected to attend the breakfast.
China has already weighed in on a potential meeting, decrying foreign interference in China's "domestic affairs." "We hope that the American side will act upon its commitment on Tibet-related issues and properly deal with relevant issues in keeping with the overall interests of bilateral relations," said a foreign ministry spokesman.
The government-published China Daily newspaper said: "Should a president of the United States meet with the Dalai Lama, it will unquestionably step on China's toes and therefore cast a shadow over US-China relations.
"Obama is acquiescing to the Dalai Lama's attempt to split Tibet from China." The Dalai Lama has lived in exile in India since 1959 after a failed uprising in Tibet.
But if Obama does not meet the Tibetan monk he also faces opprobrium.
More than 130 ethnic Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 in protest at Beijing's rule, campaign groups and overseas media have said. Most of them have died.