TAIPEI, Aug 30 – Taiwan prepared Sunday to welcome the Dalai Lama on his third and most controversial visit, as the island’s government scrambled to limit the damage this could cause to warming relations with China.
Even before Tibet’s spiritual leader had set foot on Taiwan on a trip meant to comfort victims of Typhoon Morakot, the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party was reported to have dispatched a high-level envoy to Beijing to firm up ties.
"How could you not send an emissary to do a bit of communicating?" an unnamed source close to the KMT told the United Daily News Sunday, ahead of the Dalai Lama’s five-day visit.
The paper did not positively identify the envoy, but suggested it could be KMT spokesman Lee Chien-jung, who is away on a business trip. Party officials were not immediately available for comment.
The Dalai Lama was invited by ranking members of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, which favours formal independence from China.
He was due to arrive at Taoyuan International Airport in the island’s north on a flight from New Delhi late in the day.
From there, he was expected to head straight south to Taiwan’s second-largest city Kaohsiung on a bullet train — the first special departure for any individual since the high-speed rail line was inaugurated in 2007.
Highlighting the sensitive nature of the exiled spiritual leader’s visit, it was unclear if an eagerly anticipated press conference in Kaohsiung on Monday would go ahead as intended.
Parliament speaker Wang Jin-pyng has suggested to Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu, a senior DPP figure and the organiser of the trip, that the press event be scrapped.
The Dalai Lama, who made a historic first visit to Taiwan in 1997 and went again in 2001, is expected to tour areas devastated earlier in August by Typhoon Morakot, which left at least 571 people dead.
Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, who is coming in for growing criticism over his handling of the typhoon, last week approved the visit by the Ticapitalfmnewn monk, sparking concern that Taipei may put at risk hard-won ties with China.
The visit was immediately criticised in harsh terms by Beijing, which said the Dalai Lama "is not a pure religious figure."
"Under the pretext of religion, he has all along been engaged in separatist activities," an unnamed spokesman for the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office was quoted as saying by the Xinhua news agency.
China reacts angrily to any country or territory hosting the Dalai Lama, whom it accuses of trying to split Tibet from China.
But a trip to Taiwan is particularly sensitive because Beijing regards the island as a part of its territory awaiting reunification — by force, if necessary.
Although the Dalai Lama is scheduled to return to the area near the capital, Taipei, towards the end of his visit, which lasts until Thursday, there is no plan for him to meet Ma, the president’s spokesman Wang Yu-chi told AFP Sunday.
"The trip is based on humanitarian and religious considerations, which should not hurt cross-strait ties," Wang said.
Analysts say Beijing, while condemning Taiwan’s opposition for inviting the Dalai Lama, may not punish Ma, so it can control the damage to warming ties across the Taiwan Strait.
Relations between Taiwan and China have been on the mend since Ma came to power last year pledging to boost trade and allow in more Chinese tourists.