BEIJING - China agreed yesterday to meet an envoy of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, within days, bending to rising calls for talks after weeks of antigovernment protests by his supporters that threatened to tarnish the Beijing Olympics.
The development came as the Olympic flame is wrapping up the international portion of its global torch relay - a journey that has seen large demonstrations in the past month in the West and elsewhere against China's rule in Tibet.
The communist government's statement stops well short of restarting actual negotiations on what the exiled Tibetan characterizes as alleged cultural and religious repression in his homeland.
It also restates long-established preconditions for negotiations, including that the Dalai Lama unambiguously recognize Tibet as a part of China. Their reappearance and the timing of yesterday's announcement could forestall any immediate breakthroughs.
"The Dalai Lama is always open to have a dialogue," Samdhong Rimpoche, prime minister of the India-based Tibetan government-in-exile, said at the government's headquarters in the Indian hill town of Dharmsala.
"But," he added, "the present circumstances in Tibet do not appear to be an appropriate platform for a meaningful dialogue."
Beijing has faced a chorus of calls from world leaders to open a dialogue, and White House press secretary Dana Perino said the Bush administration was encouraged by the news.
She said President Bush believes the Dalai Lama is a "man of peace" and someone that the Chinese leaders should feel comfortable conversing with. Bush has said that been urging the two to increase their interactions.
"We are hopeful that this will be a new direction in their relationship," Perino said.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he raised the issue with China's premier Thursday and called yesterday's announcement encouraging. "I believe, I believe, there's real room for a dialogue," Barroso told reporters.
Tibetan officials in the United States said the Dalai Lama left New York on Thursday for India and is scheduled to arrive in Dharmsala today.
Tibetan protests that sparked deadly rioting in the capital Lhasa in March have galvanized critics of the communist regime and threatened to overshadow the Olympics, an object of massive national pride for China.
Impassioned demonstrations have followed the flame it traveled the world. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has suggested he might skip the opening ceremony of the Olympics unless Beijing engages the Dalai Lama.
That pressure suggests China may be simply seeking to placate foreign critics ahead of the games through a form of "damage control," said Michael C. Davis, a law professor and China expert at Hong Kong's City University.
The State Department said yesterday that terrorists might want to disrupt the Olympic Games in China and warned of a heightened risk of terror attacks there in the coming months. In a travel alert, the department said Americans who plan to attend the games or who live in China should exercise caution, especially in large crowds.