The Dalai Lama is expected Monday in Taiwan for his first visit in eight years, injecting a volatile element into the political fallout from a killer typhoon.
Tibet's exiled spiritual leader -- reviled as a separatist by Beijing -- was invited to Taiwan by officials in southern communities hard hit by Typhoon Morakot. Despite having staked his presidency on closer ties with the mainland, Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou had little choice but to agree to the visit because of the uproar against his government for its sluggish reaction to the storm.
"The Dalai Lama's visit is to pray for the victims and bereaved," the president told Taiwanese television reporters, explaining his decision to allow the visit.
The Dalai Lama's office in Dharmsala, India, where the Tibetan government in exile is headquartered, has said he will accept the invitation. He is expected to stay until Sept. 4
Beijing lashed out at Taiwan for the invitation with the usual vitriol reserved for the Dalai Lama.
"Obviously this is not for the sake of disaster relief. It's an attempt to sabotage the hard-earned good situation in cross-strait relations," a Chinese government spokesman told the official New China News Agency.
In fact, the invitation to the Dalai Lama looked like a twist of the knife by the local officials, members of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which is trying to recover lost ground in local elections in December. Ma's reputation has been badly battered by his government's slow response to the typhoon. Taiwan on Thursday confirmed that 543 people were dead and 117 were missing.
"If he had refused to allow the Dalai Lama to visit Taiwan to comfort typhoon victims, it would cause a huge uproar among Taiwanese people," said Shane Lee, a political science professor at Chang Jung Christian University in southern Taiwan.
Since taking office in May 2008, Ma has opened Taiwan to Chinese tourists, allowed weekend charter flights to and from the mainland and eased investment restrictions, some of the most significant breakthroughs in six decades of estrangement between mainland China and Taiwan.
In December, he quashed plans for the Dalai Lama to visit Taiwan, saying the timing was not appropriate.
Beijing is always sensitive about the Dalai Lama's foreign visits, but especially so when it comes to Taiwan. In the past, the Chinese have accused the Tibetans and Taiwanese of nurturing each other's separatist ambitions.
"Of course, Beijing won't like the Dalai Lama visiting Taiwan and they will criticize," said Zhang Jiadong, an international relations specialist at Fudan University in Shanghai. "But I think they will understand this time that it is an internal political issue in Taiwan itself and they shouldn't be so angry."
Special correspondent Cindy Sui in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.