Taiwan, which turned away the Dalai Lama last year on fears of upsetting China, has approved a visit by the Tibetan spiritual leader next week to comfort victims of a deadly typhoon, the government said on Thursday.
Beijing brands the India-based Tibetan luminary as a separatist and condemns his trips abroad.
But while there has been no official comment yet from Beijing on the Taiwan visit, the Chinese government may be unlikely to retaliate with any steps that could choke off trade, investment, tourism and people-to-people exchanges.
Chinese public opinion is easily riled by shows of support for the Dalai Lama, but Beijing is also aware any strong moves could play into the hands of Taiwan opponents of President Ma Ying-jeou, who has sought to ease tensions with Beijing.
The president's office, under fire for perceptions his response to typhoon Morakot was too slow, and national security officials decided in a 5-hour meeting on Wednesday to permit a visit by the Dalai Lama from Aug. 31-Sept. 3, the Government Information Office said.
"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," Ma told reporters while visiting typhoon survivors.
"President Ma has done the right thing after a long, long time," said Khedroob Thondup, a Taipei-based member of the Tibetan parliament in exile. "If they refused His Holiness, there would have been a backlash."
EAGER TO VISIT
The Dalai Lama was always eager to visit Taiwan and is looking forward to the trip, his aide told Reuters from the Indian hill town of Dharamsala, headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
"The main purpose for the visit is to comfort the typhoon victims and offer prayers," Tenzin Taklha said on Thursday.
"Immediately after the typhoon (the Dalai Lama) sent a letter of condolence and expressed his sympathy and sorrow." Taklha said he was hopeful the visit would occur soon, though he said no dates have been finalised. "His holiness has always felt very close to the Taiwanese people, so he is very keen."
Taiwan, home to a large exiled Tibetan community and millions of Buddhists, allowed visits by the Dalai Lama in 1997 and 2001.
But President Ma last year quashed hopes for a 2009 visit by the Tibetan spiritual leader, saying the timing was wrong as his government was working to improve relations with China. Taiwan Buddhist groups, who had suggested the visit, criticised the decision.
Since taking office in 2008, Ma's administration has avoided action that could anger Beijing as he pursues trade ties.
Invited this week by local governments in south Taiwan, where the Aug. 7-9 typhoon is feared to have killed nearly 700 people in mudslides, the Dalai Lama will comfort survivors, many of whom are homeless, the information office said.
NO HARM TO TIES
"The Dalai Lama will be in Taiwan for religious purposes, so we welcome that," Tony Wang, presidential office spokesman, told a news conference.
"I don't think his visit will harm cross-straits ties, which have improved since May 20 last year," he said, referring to the date when Ma took office.
China has claimed sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan since 1949, when Mao Zedong's forces won the Chinese civil war and Chiang Kai-shek's KMT fled to Taiwan. Beijing has vowed to bring Taiwan under its rule, by force if necessary.
The 73-year-old Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in the region, occupied by People's Liberation Army troops in 1950.
The Dalai Lama's visit might irritate Beijing but blow over, said ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) Secretary-General Wu Den-yih.
"Beijing will be a little uncomfortable, but if they understand how severe the disaster is they will show some respect to Taiwan's people," Wu told Reuters.
Zhu Feng, professor of international security at Peking University, said: "I think that there won't be major damage from this visit, because trade and investment will continue. But it will damage channels of political communication for at least a while."
"Ma showed last year that he could withstand pressure to approve a visit, but now he'll be seen as playing politics with the mainland," said Zhu. (Additional reporting by Bappa Majumdar in NEW DELHI, and Chris Buckley and Benjamin Kang Lim in BEIJING; Editing by Jerry Norton)