- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan | The Dalai Lama led thousands of Taiwanese in a colorful prayer service for the survivors of Typhoon Morakot on Tuesday during a visit that has provoked an irritated but relatively measured response from China.

While Beijing canceled an event meant to highlight improving relations between the sides and scrapped at least two planned exchanges, analysts said the mainland mostly appeared eager to protect the gains made during Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s first 15 months in office.

Since taking office, Mr. Ma has jettisoned his predecessor’s anti-China policies, bringing Taiwan’s economy ever closer to the mainland’s, and speaking frequently in favor of a peace treaty with Beijing. As a result, relations between Taipei and Beijing are at their highest point since the two sides split amid civil war in 1949.

China, which calls the Dalai Lama a “splittist” for his purported support of Tibetan independence, protested his trip to Taiwan. The Dalai Lama’s arrival in Taiwan is particularly galling to China because Beijing regards the island as part of its territory.

On Tuesday, the spry 74-year-old spriitual leader told a gathering of about 10,000 at a sports arena in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung that the typhoon’s impact would not be permanent.

Wearing bright red and gold robes and speaking with his characteristic energy, he assured the audience that it was possible “to vanquish the atmosphere of the disaster,” which took an estimated 670 lives when it struck Taiwan early last month.

The Dalai Lama is broadly respected on this mostly Buddhist island of 23 million people, and local media have given considerable attention to his visit.

Some pro-China demonstrators have protested his appearances, but they are in a distinct minority.

China has tried to focus its ire on Taiwan’s opposition, which issued the invitation to the Tibetan spiritual leader. Mr. Ma signed off on the invitation, but in an apparent gesture of good will to China, he said he would not meet with the spiritual leader.

On Sunday, the Chinese State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office said the visit was “bound to have a negative influence on the relations between the mainland and Taiwan” - somewhat harsher than Beijing’s reaction late last week.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Ma’s Nationalist Party acknowledged Tuesday that the cancellation of two high-level visits by mainland officials to Taiwan and the nixing of ceremonies to celebrate expanded air service across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait appeared to be related to the Dalai Lama’s visit.

“We do not exclude the possibility that [they] could be linked,” Chen Shu-rong said.

Still, China specialist Chao Chun-shan of Taipei’s Tamkang University said it was unlikely that Beijing would retaliate further because of the Dalai Lama’s visit - or that Mr. Ma would give the mainland cause to do so.

“Both sides have showed restraint,” he said. “Both have handled the crisis well so far. I don’t think things will get out of control.”

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