TAIPEI, Taiwan - A group of Taiwan officials said Wednesday the Dalai Lama has accepted their invitation to visit this month, presenting the island's China-friendly president with an embarrassing political dilemma.
A joint statement by leaders from seven municipalities recently hit by deadly Typhoon Morakot said the Tibetan spiritual leader planned to be in Taiwan from Aug. 31 to Sept. 4 and would visit storm victims.
The invitation is sensitive for China on two fronts. China says the Dalai Lama is working to undermine its authority in Tibet. China also claims self-governing Taiwan as part of its territory, though they split amid civil war in 1949.
The invitation from the leaders - all from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party-comes as President Ma Ying-jeou faces criticism that he botched the government's response to the island's deadliest storm in 50 years. The National Fire Agency says more than 670 are dead or missing.
Ma spokesman Wang Yu-chi declined to say whether Taiwan would allow the Dalai Lama to visit. Analysts said such a politically sensitive visit was unlikely, though the Dalai Lama has made three visits to the island over the past 12 years.
"We have jointly invited Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to visit Taiwan on August 31, to make a speech and bestow blessings on Taiwan and the (typhoon) victims," the leaders' statement said. "The Dalai Lama has said he's very happy to come."
The Dalai Lama has accepted the invitation "in priniciple," said Tenzin Takhla, his spokesman in Dharmsala, India, home to the Tibetan government-in-exile.
He will not travel until the organizers have official approval for the visit, Takhla said, because "he doesn't want to cause any inconvenience for the Taiwanese government."
In China, the Taiwan Affairs Office, which handles Taiwan-related questions, was closed Wednesday evening. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had no immediate response.
Last December, Ma nixed plans for a Dalai Lama visit in what was largely seen as a move to placate Beijing. Improving relations between China and Taiwan is the signature issue of Ma's presidency.
One criticism against Ma since the typhoon is that his government delayed accepting foreign assistance to help deal with the disaster, out of fear of angering China.
Political scientist George Tsai of Taipei's Chinese Culture University said the Dalai Lama announcement has put Ma in a bind.
"If the central government allows Dalai Lama to visit, relations with China will be damaged, but if not, the public will think the central government lacks humanitarian concern (for victims)," Tsai said.
He said the China consideration would probably win out, making the visit very unlikely.
Andrew Yang of Taipei's Council of Advanced Political Studies agreed.
"I don't think the Ma administration will let Dalai Lama come, as Ma has already rejected the possibility of such a visit," he said. "The DPP municipal chiefs are just trying to lash out at Ma when his approval ratings are down."
Associated Press writers Ashwini Bhatia in Dharmsala and Tini Tran in Beijing contributed to this report.