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Dalai Lama invite undermines warming ties with China

Video by Kate WILLIAMS

Text by FRANCE 24 (with wires)

Latest update : 2009-08-28

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's decision to allow the Dalai Lama to visit the typhoon-hit island threatens to derail warming relations with China, but the move may be a bid to deflect domestic criticism of Ma's slow response to the disaster.

Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou has said he would allow a visit next week by the Dalai Lama to the typhoon-hit island, sparking condemnation from China and threatening warming ties between Taipei and Beijing.

"We have decided to allow the Dalai Lama's visit to pray for the souls of the deceased and seek blessings for the survivors of the typhoon," Ma told reporters on Thursday.

The Tibetan spiritual leader -- who made a historic first visit to Taiwan in 1997 and returned in 2001 -- was initially invited by politicians from the pro-independence opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to visit the south of the island, which was battered by the typhoon that left 543 dead in its wake two weeks ago.

The Taiwanese president’s decision to approve the visit was met with harsh criticism in China, according to state media.

"The Dalai Lama is not a pure religious figure," an unnamed spokesman for the mainland's Taiwan Affairs Office was quoted as saying by the Xinhua news agency after Ma gave his green light. "Under the pretext of religion, he has all along been engaged in separatist activities."

China has accused the Dalai Lama of trying to split Tibet from China, and reacts angrily to any country hosting him. But a trip to Taiwan is particularly sensitive, because Beijing considers it part of its territory awaiting reunification.

A decision driven by domestic politics?

The timing of President Ma’s decision struck many as odd.  FRANCE 24's corresponent in Beijing, Henry Morton, explains: “A cornerstone of President Ma’s policies over the last year since he’s been in power is to try and reduce tensions” between China and Taiwan.

Taiwan broke from China in 1949 after a civil war, but Ma has moved to bolster trade and tourism with the mainland after eight years of strained ties under the DPP.

Analysts in Taiwan warned that next week's trip and a possible meeting between the Dalai Lama and Ma could deal a severe blow to the improving relations.

But Morton cites motivations for Ma’s decision that have little to do with China and much to do with political survival: “The Taiwanese president is being accused of acting very slowly in response to the typhoon, his approval ratings are now down to 20 percent, the lowest they’ve been since he came into power last May….he’s really just trying to get some more political clout away from his domestic rivals,” he says.

Indeed one lawmaker of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party accused the DPP of exploiting the damage caused by the recent typhoon in order to corner President Ma into a political manoeuvre that would undermine his rapprochement efforts with mainland China.

"Obviously, this is not for the sake of disaster relief. It's an attempt to sabotage the hard-earned good situation in cross-strait relations," KMT's Lo Shu-lei was quoted as saying.

President Ma's spokesman Wang Yu-chi attempted to limit the fallout of the government’s risky decision by playing down the political significance of the Dalai Lama’s trip, stating that it was "based on humanitarian and religious considerations which should not hurt cross-strait ties."

FRANCE 24's Morton predicts that, as long as the Taiwanese government continues this tactic, the spat will likely be short-lived. He noted that Beijing’s condemnation, though firm, was not as scathing as the ire directed at other foreign dignitaries who have hosted the Dalai Lama.

The reasons for moving on from this latest bump in relations with Taiwan are clear, according to Morton: “President Ma is seen as someone the Chinese can deal with. He’s committed to improving relations between Taiwan and the mainland,” Morton explains. “And the Chinese government certainly won’t be wanting to return to the frosty eight years of relations under his predecessor.”


Date created : 2009-08-27