US ambassador makes rare visit to Tibet

The US ambassador to China is making the first trip to Tibet by an American envoy in four years after obtaining rare access to the restricted region, his embassy said Monday.

The visit by Ambassador Terry Branstad comes two months after the US State Department said Beijing had "systematically" impeded access to Tibetan areas for US diplomats, journalists and tourists.

Branstad was scheduled to visit Qinghai province and the neighbouring Tibet Autonomous Region from Sunday until this Saturday, an embassy spokesperson said in an email to AFP.

"This visit is a chance for the Ambassador to engage with local leaders to raise longstanding concerns about restrictions on religious freedom and the preservation of Tibetan culture and language," the spokesperson said.

"The Ambassador welcomes this opportunity to visit the Tibet Autonomous Region, and encourages authorities to provide access to the region to all American citizens."

Branstad will have official meetings, visit schools and tour religious and cultural heritage sites. His visit comes amid rising trade war tensions between Beijing and Washington.

Branstad's predecessor, Max Baucus, visited Tibet in May 2015.

According to the State Department's March report, five out of nine US requests to visit Tibet were rejected last year, including one by Branstad.

China has rejected the US report as "full of prejudice".

Chinese authorities have cited special "geographic" and "climatic conditions" as reasons for restricting access to the Himalayan region.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said he was not aware about a previous request by Branstad being rejected.

But Lu said that if diplomats want to visit "special places", it is "of course probably necessary to talk things over with the relevant parties before they can embark on the trip."

This year marks the 60th anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule that forced the region's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, into permanent exile in India.

Lu said Beijing welcomes Branstad's visit so he can witness "the earth-shaking changes in the economy, society and people's production and life over the past 60 years after its peaceful liberation".

"I hope Ambassador Branstad's visit to Tibet this time can be carried out without any prejudice and can be based on an objective attitude, and based on the spirit of respecting the facts to make his own conclusions," Lu said at a regular press briefing.

Beijing continues to be accused of political and religious repression in the region, but insists Tibetans enjoy extensive freedoms and economic growth.

At least 150 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 to protest Beijing's presence in Tibet, most of whom later died.