The Central News Agency reported today that Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama will be visiting southern Taiwan next week to bring comfort to the victims of Typhoon Morakot. According to the news agency, the Dalai Lama is expected to arrive on Monday and remain in Taiwan until Sept. 4, but there was no news yet as to whether he would meet Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
Should this come to pass (after all, the Dalai Lama needs a visa to be allowed to enter the country, which the Ma administration denied him in December last year, claiming the timing was not right), this would be good news for two reasons:
First, very few people alive today could bring as much spiritual comfort to the victims of Morakot as the Dalai Lama. Southern Taiwanese would undoubtedly be uplifted by the presence of a man who stands for universal values of humanity and compassion. In fact, he would bring to the people what their president, who remained aloof and distant, failed miserably to provide during those extraordinarily trying times. Taiwan has long been a friend of the Dalai Lama and Tibetans; this would be an occasion for the spiritual leader to reciprocate.
Secondly, by granting the Dalai Lama permission to visit, Taiwanese authorities would demonstrate that they remain willing to stand up to Beijing, as there is no doubt China would be “angered” by the presence of the Dalai Lama on Taiwanese soil. The Ma administration’s willingness to risk that could very well be the result of widespread popular dissatisfaction at its handling of Morakot. In fact, approval levels for Ma and his Cabinet have tanked to such an extent that this time around they may be in no position to turn the Dalai Lama down (it would be interesting to see who, in the “green” local governments, initiated the idea of the visit; as I argued in an article back in December, anyone who wanted to cause Ma headaches should pressure Taipei to allow such a visit). Furthermore, allowing the visit could help the Ma administration score some political points — which it is desperate for nowadays.
Years ago, when I was doing graduate studies in armed conflict, I remember a professor mentioning that political conflict will sometimes be dramatically influenced by external factors, external in that they are unexpected and not part of the known variables (e.g., leadership, balance of power, allies, etc). One such external factor was nature. Here’s the implication for conflict in the Taiwan Strait:
Since Ma came into office in May last year, the direction of the protracted political conflict in the Taiwan Strait changed substantially and, according to many, it shifted in Beijing’s favor, in that cultural and economic integration were bringing about inevitable political adjustments (i.e., closer Sino-Taiwanese ties, distancing from Tokyo, etc). At the height of this rapprochement, Taipei did everything in its power to keep things on track — even, as we saw, denying a visit by the Dalai Lama because it would risk creating problems with Beijing.
Less than a year later, however, the blow that Typhoon Morakot has dealt the Ma administration — in that it no longer is in a position to ignore popular discontent as it forges ahead in its cross-strait policies — is forcing the Ma Cabinet to pay more attention to domestic politics, from which the Dalai Lama visit cannot be dissociated. In other words, the domestic cost of denying a visit by the Dalai Lama would be far greater now than it was back in November. An offshoot of this is that Taipei is being forced to make a policy decision that it knows will anger Beijing, which accuses the Dalai Lama of being a “splittist” and seeking to “break China apart.” The ramification of this visit is that we will likely see the first crisis in cross-strait relations since the Beijing-friendly Ma came into office: expect, once the Dalai Lama has arrived in Taiwan, to see accusations across the strait of Ma siding with a “splittist,” or of breaking his promise to abide by the “one China” principle. Attendant to this will be a hardening of positions, with both sides moving toward the political center — in other words, toward the “status quo” of old.
For Taiwanese independence, this is an immensely positive development, despite the great human cost that made this possible.