Recent reports have some Taiwanese worried that their government, the Republic of China (ROC), might be about to lose another diplomatic ally. The Vatican, Taiwan’s only diplomatic ally in Europe, and the only developed nation that formally recognizes the ROC, has reportedly made a breakthrough in its ongoing talks with the People’s Republic of China in Beijing.
Since assuming the Catholic Church’s highest office in 2013, Pope Francis has been open about his desire for better relations with China. That’s easier said than done, however, given the gulf between the Holy See and Beijing. The Chinese government requires ultimate control over religious institutions within the PRC, while the Vatican maintains that it is the final authority over the Catholic Church. That dynamic has particularly manifested in disagreements over who has the right to appoint bishops in China.
As the New York Times explained, “Beijing has appointed seven bishops that Rome opposes, while an estimated 30 to 40 underground bishops with Rome’s blessing operate without the Chinese government’s approval.” In February 2017, Cardinal John Tong Hon, the head of the Church in Hong Kong, wrote that “The core problem to be resolved [in China-Vatican relations] is the appointment of bishops.”
This week, reports emerged that hinted at a breakthrough on that issue. The Holy See has reportedly asked two bishops, currently approved by the Vatican but not by Beijing, to stand aside in favor of China’s preferred alternatives — including one bishop who had been excommunicated. Cardinal Joseph Zen, Tong’s predecessor as Bishop of Hong Kong, confirmed the reports in a Facebook post, saying that he had traveled to Rome to personally deliver a letter to Pope Francis from one of the “underground” bishops. In the post, Zen accused the Vatican of “selling out” to appease China, although he also said he found the pope’s words “consoling and encouraging.”
If the appointment of bishops has been sorted out through a deal between the PRC and the Holy See, then there’s only one remaining stumbling block: China will not agree to formally establish ties with the Vatican unless the latter first agrees to give up relations with Taiwan.
Until recently, China and Taiwan had an informal “diplomatic truce,” wherein neither side would seek to convince countries to flip diplomatic recognition. With the political ascendance of the Democratic Progressive Party, which favors independence, in Taiwan, Beijing showed its displeasure by breaking that truce. Since 2016, the year the DPP assumed control of both the Legislative Yuan and the presidency, China has established ties with Gambia, Sao Tome and Principe, and Panama — all of which formerly recognized Taiwan. Now, there are worries that the Vatican could be next.
Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported that the Vatican was keeping Taipei informed of developments in its talks with Beijing and that, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), the ROC-Holy See relationship is “stable.” That echoes a comment from a MOFA spokesperson in November 2017.
A more recent MOFA statement declared that:
…the Republic of China (Taiwan) will continue to strengthen bilateral cooperation and exchange with the Holy See, and, striving to increase the countries’ humanitarian and charitable partnership, serve as an indispensable partner to the Vatican and the world in championing the causes of benevolence and peace.
Some Taiwanese legislators are less sanguine, and called on the government to prepare for the worst, calling the reports of a China-Vatican breakthrough a warning sign.
Taiwan has had opportunities to shore up ties through a number of recent exchanges. The two sides celebrated 75 years of relations last October, with events in both Taipei and the Vatican. At the Vatican celebration, Taiwanese Ambassador Matthew Lee said, “We attach great importance to friendship with the Holy See and our ties are marked by a close and growing friendship.”
Earlier in January, Vice President Chen Chien-jen, himself a Catholic, met with Mariano Fazio, vicar general of the prelature of Opus Dei, and invited Pope Francis to visit Taiwan. No pope has ever visited the island.
According to the MOFA, a major change in the Vatican’s relationship with China is unlikely because the situation is so complicated. That might sound like wishful thinking, but there have been reports of a pending “breakthrough” between Beijing and the Vatican for years — with no actual pay off. Meanwhile, setting aside the contentious issue of bishop appointments, the Holy See would have to seriously consider the negative optics of recognizing Beijing over Taipei at a time when China is cracking down on Christians while Taiwan has just elected its first Catholic vice president.
John Allen, Jr., writing for Crux, notes that there has long been a pattern of thaw-chill-repeat in China-Vatican relations, and this is unlikely to change:
The truth is that the main impediment to a deal has never been on the Vatican side, which is eager to move forward. Among China’s ruling elite, however, there’s a longstanding split between moderates who like the idea of closer ties with the leading spiritual symbol of the West, and ideological hard-liners who fear foreign influence.
The question, then, is whether China’s fear of “foreign influence” will be outweighed by the desire to poach yet another diplomatic ally from Taiwan.