Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dalai Lama Consoling Taiwan Storm Victims May Hurt China Ties

(Bloomberg) -- The Dalai Lama arrives in Taiwan tonight to console survivors of the island’s deadliest storm in half a century, a five-day stay that may endanger efforts by President Ma Ying-jeou to widen ties with mainland China.

Ma agreed to the visit, organized by opposition politicians, as his popularity declined after the government’s slow response this month to the devastation caused by Typhoon Morakot.

China views the Dalai Lama, a rallying figure for Tibetan independence supporters, as a divisive force and has reacted angrily toward countries that host him. Relations across the Taiwan Strait have thawed under Ma, leading to agreements on investment and travel.

“Ma doesn’t really have a choice but to let the Dalai Lama come as this is his chance to win support from constituents in the south, worst hit by the typhoon,” said Yang Tai-shuenn, a political scientist at Chinese Culture University in Taipei. “Of course China won’t like it. But Ma can try to amend relations by further relaxing restrictions on cross-strait investments and other economic agendas.”

Morakot pummeled Taiwan Aug. 6-9, dumping the most rain ever recorded in any 48-hour span, according to the Central Weather Bureau. The storm killed at least 543 people, causing floods and landslides, burying villages and destroying roads and bridges throughout the south.

Too Little, Too Late

Survivors say rescue efforts were too slow after the government initially rejected offers of assistance from countries including the U.S. and Israel. A TVBS opinion poll on Aug. 12 showed 47 percent disapproved of Ma’s rescue efforts, while 51 percent disapproved of Premier Liu Chao-shiuan. In southern Taiwan, Ma’s disapproval rate rose to 51 percent, the survey showed.

Letting the Dalai Lama visit is a “calculated decision” by Ma “to secure more votes from the south” in December’s local elections, said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of Taiwan’s Chinese Council for Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei. Ma’s ruling Kuomintang party “may suffer a defeat if he doesn’t allow the visit,” Yang added

The Nobel Peace Prize winner has visited Taiwan at least twice, in 1997 and 2001, the Foreign Ministry in Taipei said.

Ma, who in December ruled out a visit by the Tibetan leader, saying the timing wasn’t appropriate, has no plans to meet him, according to Presidential Office spokesman Wang Yu- chi. “We have made no arrangement” for such a meeting, Wang said by telephone yesterday.

Prayer & Comfort

The main purpose of the Dalai Lama’s visit is to offer prayers and provide comfort to people affected by the typhoon, Tenzin Takhla, a spokesman, said on Aug. 27 from Dharamshala, northern India, where the Tibetan government-in-exile is based.

Ties with China won’t be harmed by the visit, Wang said the same day.

China “resolutely opposes” such a visit, its official Xinhua news agency reported after Wang spoke.

“Under the pretext of religion, he has all along been engaged in separatist activities,” Xinhua reported that day, citing a spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office it didn’t name. “The Dalai Lama is not a pure religious figure.”

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet after a failed rebellion against Chinese forces in 1959. He accuses the government in Beijing of committing “cultural genocide” there and says mass migration of ethnic Han Chinese has made Tibetans a minority in their own land. China says it peacefully liberated Tibet and saved its people from serfdom.

Economic Diplomacy

Ma wants closer ties with China, the island’s biggest trading partner, to revive an economy that slid into a recession in the fourth quarter of last year. Gross domestic product contracted 7.54 percent in the second quarter of 2009, after declining a revised 10.13 percent three months earlier, the government said this month.

Taiwan and China have been ruled separately since Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang, or Nationalists, fled to the island after being defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949. China regards Taiwan as part of its territory and has threatened to use force to reclaim it.

Ma abandoned his predecessor’s pro-independence stance after taking over the presidency in May 2008. Direct flights, shipping and postal services across the Taiwan Strait resumed in December, ending a six-decade ban. In June, Taiwan opened 100 industries and projects to Chinese investments.

“Whatever Ma does, he has to make sure he isn’t endorsing Tibet’s political agenda,” Yang said.


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