The issue of whether to grant a visa to the Dalai Lama has emerged as a dilemma for many nations, including Taiwan. President Ma Ying-jeou's Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) administration lauds its policies as responsible for the most peaceful cross-strait relations in six decades. To welcome Tibet's spiritual leader — a man who China referred to as a “tricky liar skilled in double-dealing”— to Taiwan might appear a bit complicated. Yet, if Taiwan hopes for the world to view it as a nation that, as President Ma puts it, “[up]holds democracy,” “observes the rule of law,” and “protects human rights,” welcoming the Dalai Lama to Taiwan is both a natural and logical choice.
A few months ago, the International Federation of Business and Professional Women (BPW International) invited the religious leader to its Asia-Pacific regional conference, which took place from December 1st – 3rd in Taipei. The president of BPW International, Freda Mirkilis, wrote to President Ma regarding the invitation on August 8th and again on September 10th. As Founding President of BPW Taiwan, former Vice President Annette Lu also personally called President Ma to ask for his help in facilitating the Dalai Lama’s visa to Taiwan. Ma told Lu that allowing the religious leader to come to Taiwan at this moment would prove to be "a complex issue,” and the KMT administration officially denied the request on November 16th. In a letter to BPW International President Mirkilis, Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lin stated that the Dalai Lama "is welcome to travel to Taiwan in due course; however, we need to arrange a more opportune time for his visit." Deputy Foreign Minister Simon Ko also said at a legislative hearing that “After an internal evaluation, we decided that now is not an appropriate time to have the Dalai Lama visit Taiwan,” while failing to provide any insight into the decision-making process.
Opposition legislator Bi-khim Hsiao, who serves on the Legislative Yuan foreign affairs committee and was formerly the vice-chairman of the Taiwan Tibet Exchange Foundation, responded by stating that "The Taiwanese have a special sympathy for the people of Tibet and their struggle for freedom and human rights. The government's decision to deny a visa to their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama at this time runs contrary to our values and reflects an alarming trend of China's growing influence over Taiwan." Ambassador Joseph Wu, Taiwan's former representative to the United States, also spoke to The Diplomat regarding the controversy. “[President Ma Ying-jeou] depends on China economically to the degree that now China can dictate his foreign policy. Ma has forgotten what Dalai Lama means to the world but has remembered well that he should not do anything to irritate China."
China consistently lashes out against and economically penalizes countries with foreign policies that conflict with its "core national interests," especially regarding issues of perceived territorial sovereignty. At the end of November 2012, the South Africa Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that the government acted illegally by failing to grant the Dalai Lama a visa last year. The religious leader had planned to attend a celebration for Archbishop Desmond Tutu's 80th birthday. Many observers argued that the visa denial was the direct result of Chinese pressure; the PRC had just agreed to invest $2.5 billion dollars into South African geological and mineral resource development. Given the Ma administration’s heavy focus on strengthening economic ties with China, one can similarly imagine why the government denied a visa to the Tibetan religious leader.
Ma Ying-jeou's position regarding the Dalai Lama has shifted over the years. As Taipei Mayor, Ma proclaimed that the Buddhist leader was welcome to visit the capital whenever he wished. Since his inauguration as President, however, the government has denied the Dalai Lama visas on several occasions. In December 2008, his administration refused a visit from the Dalai Lama, stating that the timing was inappropriate. In 2009, the Dalai Lama was allowed to visit Taiwan to comfort and pray for the victims of Typhoon Morakot, which devastated southern Taiwan and caused at least 550 deaths. President Ma nevertheless declined to meet with the religious leader, who insisted that his trip was strictly a non-political, humanitarian mission.
In President Ma’s post-reelection inaugural address last May, he discussed his plan to further cooperation between China and Taiwan. Ma stated at the time: “In the next four years, the two sides of the strait have to open up new areas of cooperation and continue working to consolidate peace, expand prosperity and deepen mutual trust. We also hope that civic groups on both sides of the Taiwan Strait will have more opportunities for exchanges and dialogue focusing on such areas as democracy, human rights, rule of law and civil society, to create an environment more conducive to peaceful cross-strait development.”
Civic groups can indeed play a crucial role in promoting human rights and democracy, particularly when China engages in retaliatory measures against governments whose leaders meet with the Dalai Lama. By denying a visa to the Tibetan spiritual leader, President Ma missed a valuable opportunity: organizations such as BPW International provide an excellent mechanism for Taiwan to demonstrate its commitment to human rights, democracy, and religious freedom. Nevertheless, it is equally important for world leaders to signal to Beijing that they refuse to submit to political or economic bullying. Just as China has its "core interests," democratic countries must also stand by their own core values and interests as well.
Ketty Chen is a visiting scholar at the National Taiwan University. Julia Famularo is a research affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute and China Power contributor.