Page last updated at 12:23 GMT, Thursday, 27 August 2009 13:23 UK

Taiwan risks row over Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama, 4 August
Chinese opinion is easily riled by shows of support for the Dalai Lama

Taiwan has approved a visit by the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, risking improved ties with China.

President Ma Ying-jeou has agreed to a request from the opposition to invite the Dalai Lama next week, to comfort victims of deadly Typhoon Morakot.

China said it was "resolutely opposed" to the visit, in a statement carried by the state-run Xinhua news agency.

China considers the exiled Dalai Lama a dangerous separatist and self-governed Taiwan to be part of its territory.

China usually voices anger at nations that welcome the Dalai Lama.

"The Dalai Lama is not a purely religious figure. He raises the religious banner and continues to carry out attempting to split the country," China's Taiwan Affairs Bureau said in its statement.

"No matter under what form or identity the Dalai Lama uses to enter Taiwan, we resolutely oppose this," the statement continued.

Praying for the dead

Under Taiwan's previous pro-independence administration, the Dalai Lama visited the island several times - most recently in 2001.

But President Ma Ying-jeou, who came to power in 2008, is much closer to China than his predecessor Chen Shui-bian.

Cindy Sui
Cindy Sui, BBC News in Taipei
Allowing the Dalai Lama's visit is being seen as a politically-calculated move by President Ma Ying-jeou aimed at avoiding further public criticism of him and his administration.

The president cannot afford to have his approval ratings, already at a record low, plunge further for being seen as bowing to pressure from Beijing. And analysts said he would face a public backlash if he did not let the visit go ahead.

Mr Ma's office sounded confident ties with China will not be damaged.

Last year he refused to grant permission for a visit by the Dalai Lama, saying the timing was not right as his government was working to improve relations with Beijing.

But the typhoon and its aftermath have left Mr Ma in a difficult position.

An estimated 500 people were killed by severe flooding and mudslides caused by the typhoon - the worst Taiwan has suffered for 50 years - and Mr Ma's administration has been criticised for its slow and inefficient response.

His popularity has plunged to a record low of 20% over his handling of the disaster.

According to the BBC's Cindy Sui in Taipei, the president needed to give the green light to the Dalai Lama's visit because he could not afford to hurt his and his party's image any further.

So after a five-hour meeting with security officials, he chose to allow the trip.

"We've... decided to let the Dalai Lama visit as he is coming here to pray for the dead victims, as well as the survivors," Mr Ma told reporters.

The Tibetan spiritual leader is due to arrive on 31 August and to stay for four days, with the focus of his trip being entirely to comfort those affected by the typhoon.

The Dalai Lama has long been eager to visit Taiwan, and is looking forward to the trip, his aide told Reuters news agency.

Military soldiers helping to clean the streets of Linbian, in southern Taiwan
Many relatives of those killed in the south of Taiwan blame the government

Taiwan is home to a large exiled Tibetan community, and millions of Taiwanese are Buddhists.

The Chinese government considers Mr Ma's administration far easier to deal with than the island's previous pro-independence leadership.

Correspondents say that if Chinese officials were to harshly criticise the visit, they might play into the hands of Taiwan's opposition by reducing Mr Ma's popularity even further.

A spokesman for Taiwan's Presidential Office refused to say whether Beijing had yet been informed of the decision, but he said "cross-strait relations will not be negatively affected by allowing the Dalai Lama to visit."

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