President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said last week that the Dalai Lama would not be welcome to visit Taiwan anytime soon. The Presidential Office said such a visit, given the current state of cross-strait affairs, would undo its efforts, and that Ma’s decision was based on national interest. This view ignores the existence of Taiwan and only takes aim at short-term benefits.
Since the question was hypothetical — the Dalai Lama hasn’t applied for permission to visit — Ma could have avoided controversy by simply pointing this out. Instead, he chose to say the Tibetan spiritual leader would not be welcome. His statement was clearly aimed at currying favor with China. Even if such a visit had been in the cards, Ma could have stressed that it was purely for religious reasons, and that he would not meet the monk. Instead, Ma caved in completely.
China sees the Dalai Lama as the leader of the Tibetan independence movement. His every move is followed by Chinese protests and suppression. In advance of his meeting on Saturday with French President Nicolas Sarkozy — who currently holds the rotating EU presidency — Beijing tried to intimidate Sarkozy by postponing a planned EU-China summit. The US, Germany and Canada have received similar treatment as a result of the Dalai Lama’s visits, but the leaders of these democracies have insisted on allowing him to visit and meeting with him. They do so out of concern for Tibetan human rights, democracy and religious freedom and because the Dalai Lama insists on achieving Tibetan autonomy through peaceful means.
The cross-strait relationship is indeed important to Taiwan and we all hope the two sides will be able to coexist peacefully. The cross-strait relationship, however, is not the same as the national interest — a free economy, democracy, human rights and national dignity are more important. Because the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have divergent views of these supposedly universal values, it makes no sense to sacrifice Taiwan’s longstanding pursuit of these values for the sake of cross-strait relations.
Ma’s public rejection of a visit by the Dalai Lama will have far reaching consequences. Taiwan will now be seen as working together with China to intimidate the Dalai Lama. Taiwan has long claimed to be a representative of democracy, freedom and human rights in the face of bullying and intimidation by China. Most countries may have sacrificed Taiwan because of Chinese pressures and their own national interests, but they remain sympathetic to Taiwan.
Ma has shot Taiwan in the foot: If Taiwan can’t resist Chinese pressure, then how could we ask for international support?
Taiwanese democracy and human rights have deteriorated since Ma became president. Currying favor with a neighbor that has more than 1,000 missiles aimed at Taiwan and treating the cross-strait relationship as the only national interest is tantamount to bowing to brute force by refusing to allow a visit by an international symbol of human rights, religious freedom and democracy.
Ma has seriously damaged Taiwan, but there may still be a solution. Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) has suggested that religious organizations invite the Dalai Lama to visit as a religious leader, as was the case before. This could be the way to save Taiwan’s international image.