The announcement by Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on Friday that he hopes to visit Taiwan — where he has a large base of supporters — sometime next year will present an immense challenge to the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration, which in recent months has endeavored to improve ties with Beijing.
Despite the Dalai Lama’s assertion that, given the improved relations in the Taiwan Strait, “maybe this is a good time” to visit Taiwan, the symbolism of the presence in Taiwan of such a paramount icon of autonomy would be such that Beijing would bring tremendous pressure to bear on Taipei not to permit it.
Beijing’s response would certainly be much harsher than the retaliations it has meted out on other countries when their leaders met the spiritual leader, which usually consisted of canceled talks on human rights or demarches by Foreign Ministry officials.
If Taipei showed signs it was about to approve a visit by the Dalai Lama — and approval would be required — Beijing would likely resort to blackmail and warn that cross-strait talks could be jeopardized, if not mothballed altogether. It could also resort to various forms of economic warfare, which would highlight the misguided, if not suicidal, strategy of the Ma administration to further couple the nation’s economy with that of China.
In light of this, the expected reaction by Taipei would be to deny entry to the Dalai Lama, on the grounds that a visit at this time would be detrimental to ongoing diplomatic efforts, perhaps even to national security. In fact, addressing the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club at the Sherwood Hotel in Taipei yesterday, Ma said that while Taiwan “generally welcomes” religious leaders, the timing for a visit by the Dalai Lama was “inappropriate.”
Sadly for Ma, however, the problem does not end here, as he is caught between a rock and a hard place. He finds himself in a situation where regardless of his decision on the visit, he is bound to generate great discontent: While allowing a visit would send a strong signal of leadership and political independence, it would undeniably “anger” Beijing. Conversely, denying a visit would infuriate the Dalai Lama’s representatives as well as his many supporters and admirers in Taiwan, including the entire pro-independence camp, for whom the Dalai Lama also serves as a symbol.
Denying the Dalai Lama a visa could be as divisive as the visit early last month of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), except that this time around, rather than protesting the visit of a reviled Chinese envoy, Ma’s detractors would vent anger at the state’s denial of a visit by one of their own, a symbol of liberty and human rights, and put pressure on the government to overturn its decision.
In either instance, Ma and his government would be seen to be siding with China against the wishes of Taiwanese.
By quickly launching its peace initiative with Beijing while failing to take into account the fact that there are lines Chinese leaders will never allow to be crossed — Taiwanese and Tibetan independence being two of the more salient examples — the Ma administration put itself in a straightjacket and severely limited its options diplomatically, so much so that the visit of one man, however potent a symbol for Tibetan autonomy he may be, holds the promise of either scuttling cross-strait talks or generating civil strife.
It didn’t have to be this way. A more cautious, gradual approach to “peace” with China would have provided Taipei with more room to maneuver. After all, the Dalai Lama visited Taiwan in 1997 and 2001 and met former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) without incident. The crucial difference between then and now is that the Ma administration has allowed itself to become hostage to cross-strait “goodwill” by making good relations with Beijing a cornerstone of its campaign promises.
Fully aware of this, Beijing knows that by the mere threat of withholding that goodwill, it can dictate Taipei’s decisions. Hence the contrast between Ma’s remark in March that he would welcome the Dalai Lama and what he said yesterday.
Ironically, the administration has also put itself at the mercy of the Dalai Lama and his many supporters, who now have the power to create serious trouble for Ma by simply making an official — and well publicized — request for a visit.
Ma has often talked about creating “win-win” situations. Inauspicuously for him, he’s about to get a taste of the “lose-lose” by having to choose his poison.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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