Beliefnet News

TAIPEI, Taiwan – China on Thursday denounced Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s decision to allow the Dalai Lama to visit the self-ruled island, casting a shadow over rapidly improving relations between Taipei and Beijing.
However, Beijing appeared to stop short of deliberately undermining Ma’s stature and jeopardizing the budding ties across the 100-mile- (160-kilometer-) wide Taiwan Strait.
Ma’s announcement – which followed an invitation to the Tibetan spiritual leader by officials from Taiwan’s pro-independence opposition – surprised many. The China-friendly leader has made a priority of seeking better relations with the mainland and just last December nixed plans for a visit by the Dalai Lama in what was deemed an attempt to placate Beijing.
China has long vilified the Dalai Lama for what they say are his attempts to fight for independence in Tibet, which has been under Communist rule for decades.
Ma said Thursday he was approving the Dalai Lama’s visit because it could help ease the island’s pain after the devastation of Typhoon Morakot, the storm that struck Taiwan earlier this month at the cost of an estimated 670 lives.
“The Dalai Lama could come to Taiwan to help rest the souls of the dead and also pray for the well-being of the survivors,” he said.
In its first official comment on Ma’s decision, China said it “resolutely opposes” the Dalai Lama’s visit “in whatever form and capacity.”
Quoting an unnamed official at the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said “the Dalai Lama is not a pure religious figure.”
“Under the pretext of religion, he has all along been engaged in separatist activities,” the official was quoted as saying.
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council – the Cabinet-level body responsible for relations with China – declined to comment on the Xinhua report.
Xinhua did not mention Ma by name, placing the blame for the Dalai Lama’s visit squarely on the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. The distinction appears to be a deliberate Chinese effort to make clear its displeasure with Ma’s decision, without necessarily pushing him into a corner.
Such nuance is understandable.
In his 15 months in office, Ma has turned the corner on his DPP predecessor’s anti-China policies, bringing the Taiwanese and Chinese economies ever closer together, and speaking in favor of a peace treaty with Beijing.
The moves have reduced tensions between the sides to their lowest point since they split amid civil war in 1949, and raised hopes for an eventual solution to one of the world’s most enduring conflicts.
Ma’s decision to approve the Dalai Lama’s visit came a day after leaders of seven municipalities hard hit by Morakot issued a joint statement inviting the Dalai Lama to visit storm victims from Aug. 31 to Sept. 4. The invitation from the leaders was issued as Ma faced charges that he botched the government’s response to the island’s deadliest storm in 50 years.
The invitation put Ma into a bind – either risk angering China, or give further ammunition to the opposition, which accuses him of hewing too closely to Beijing’s line.
It also created great difficulties for Beijing. The communist leadership is trying to build on its historic rapprochement with Taiwan while at the same time seeking to isolate the 74-year-old spiritual leader whom the mainland accuses of fomenting separatist violence in China-held Tibet. Too harsh a reaction risks alienating Taiwanese while playing down the visit might encourage other governments to welcome visits from the Dalai Lama – something Beijing has battled mightily to discourage.
Taiwan and Tibet share similar histories. Both are territories that Beijing believes should be under its rule. Despite a failed 1959 uprising that sent the Dalai Lama into exile, China controls Tibet and has refused the Tibetan religious leader’s request for greater autonomy.
Associated Press Writers Charles Hutzler and Tini Tran in Beijing contributed to this report.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus