Taiwan approves Dalai Lama visit

TAIPEI, Taiwan: Taiwan's president risked angering China with his surprise announcement Thursday that he has agreed to let the Dalai Lama visit the island to comfort survivors of a devastating typhoon.

President Ma Ying-jeou's move was unexpected because he has made a priority of seeking better relations with China, and just last December nixed plans for a visit by the Buddhist spiritual leader in what was deemed a move to placate Beijing.

But his government has come under fire over its slow response to Typhoon Morakot, which claimed 670 lives when it hit Aug. 8-9, and opposition politicians in the storm zone pointedly invited the Tibetan spiritual leader to the island to console survivors.

The invitation put Ma into a bind either risk angering China, or give further ammunition to the opposition, which accuses him of hewing Beijing's line. On Thursday, Ma gave his answer while visiting a school in Nantou County that was destroyed in mudslides triggered by the storm.

"The Dalai Lama could come to Taiwan to help rest the souls of the dead and also pray for the well-being of the survivors," he said.

There was no immediate comment from either China's Taiwan Affairs Office or Foreign Ministry.

Beijing considers the Dalai Lama a "splittist" for promoting autonomy in the Chinese region of Tibet, and opposes visits to foreign countries that raise his profile. Allowing him to visit Taiwan could undermine the rapidly improving relations between Beijing and Taipei, longtime rivals which are developing close business ties after decades of enmity.

China claims self-governing Taiwan as part of its territory, though they split amid civil war in 1949.

On Wednesday, leaders of seven municipalities hit by Morakot issued a joint statement inviting the Dalai Lama to visit storm victims from Aug. 31 to Sept. 4. The invitation from the leaders all from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party came as Ma faced criticism that he botched the government's response to the island's deadliest storm in 50 years.

The Dalai Lama who has made three visits to the island over the past 12 years has accepted the invitation "in principle," his spokesman Tenzin Takhla said Wednesday from Dharmsala, India, home to the Tibetan government-in-exile.

Since becoming president 15 months ago, Ma has reversed many of his predecessor's anti-China policies, tightening economic links across the 100-mile (160-kilometer) -wide Taiwan Strait and even speaking of a peace treaty with Beijing.

Presidential spokesman Wang Yu-chi said the Dalai Lama's upcoming visit would be strictly religious, with no political overtones.

"We welcome the Dalai Lama to come to Taiwan to take part in mass prayers," Wang told reporters. He said the visit was approved "for humanitarian and religious considerations ... and we believe it will not harm cross-Strait relations."

Wang declined to say if Ma would meet the Dalai Lama during his stay in Taiwan.

Ma's policy of seeking better relations with China contrasts sharply with the opposition DPP's strong support for formal independence for the island of 23 million people.

That stance infuriates Beijing, which has repeatedly warned that any move to make the Taiwan-China split permanent would lead to war.

Taiwan and Tibet share similar histories. Both are territories that Beijing believes should be under its rule. Despite a failed 1959 uprising that sent the Dalai Lama into exile, China controls Tibet and has refused the Tibetan religious leader's request for greater autonomy.