China rage at Dalai's Taiwan tour

The Dalai Lama plans to visit Taiwan in a move which is certain to infuriate Peking.

Chin Hsin, head of the island nation's Chinese Buddhist Association, said yesterday: "We will arrange one or two speeches and he will visit some temples. He will have absolutely no official contacts or activities." Mr Chin said the visit could take place as soon as March. Any such trip would be seen by Peking as a double affront to the integrity of Chinese sovereignty. China's government considers the exiled Tibetan leader to be a "splittist" while also habitually accusing Taiwan of seeking de facto independence through its diplo- matic links.

However, any visit will also have to be handled carefully by Taipei which, like Peking, considers Tibet to be an inalienable part of China. The Dalai Lama will only be welcomed as a religious and not a political figure.

Peking will grimace at another meeting today when Taiwan's vice-president, Lien Chan, visits the Vatican and sees the Pope. China has already criticised this meeting, saying that it would be part of Taiwan's attempts to "create two Chinas".

With 1997 seeing the return of Hong Kong to the mainland, China's leaders are becoming increasingly aggressive in trying to undermine Taiwan's minimal diplomatic identity. On Friday, China vetoed a United Nations resolution to send peace-keepers to Guatemala, one of several Central American countries with diplomatic relations with Taipei rather than Peking. The resolution would have allowed 155 observers to go to Guatemala to monitor the peace deal which it is hoped has ended the 36 year civil war.

Last week was the first time in 24 years that China has used its UN veto, and a signal that it is now prepared to be more ruthless in seeking to undermine Taiwan. Guatemala has supported Taiwan's mostly symbolic attempts to regain a UN seat. A strident editorial yesterday in the official China Daily said: "Guatemala has to reap what it has sown."

About 30 countries, mostly in Central America and Africa, recognise Taiwan rather than China, but Taipei received a severe blow in November when South Africa said it would switch allegiance to the mainland. That move leaves the Vatican as the most significant diplomatic ally, one which Taipei is doing everything it can to preserve.