The Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama was expected to arrive last night and visit southern Taiwan to bring comfort to the victims of Typhoon Morakot.
Despite the fact the Presidential Office indicated on Friday that he would not meet President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) during his visit, the Dalai Lama’s arrival is good news.
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 throughout the disaster, failed miserably to provide during those extraordinarily trying times.
Taiwan has long been a friend of the Dalai Lama and Tibetans; this is an occasion for the spiritual leader to reciprocate.
By granting him permission to visit, Taiwanese authorities have demonstrated that they remain willing — at least to a certain extent — to stand up to China. That willingness, however, 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 have been in no position to turn the Dalai Lama down.
Furthermore, in allowing the visit, the Ma administration could score some political points domestically — something for which it is currently desperate.
Given the focus in political science circles on human agency in political conflict, external factors — developments that are unexpected and not part of the known variables (for example leadership, balance of power, allies, etc) but can have a dramatic impact on how conflict develops — are often overlooked. One such external factor is nature.
Since Ma came to office in May last year, the direction of the protracted political conflict in the Taiwan Strait changed substantially and, according to many, shifted in Beijing’s favor, with cultural and economic integration bringing about inevitable political adjustments (such as closer Sino-Taiwanese ties and a distancing of Tokyo).
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 last year because it would risk creating problems with Beijing.
Now, however, the blow that Typhoon Morakot has dealt the Ma administration, which is no longer in a position to ignore popular discontent as it forges ahead with its cross-strait policies, is forcing the government to pay more attention to domestic politics.
The cost of denying a visit by the Dalai Lama now would have been far greater than it was back in December. 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 to office: Expect to see accusations from 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 gave rise to it.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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