The relationship between China and the Holy See is moving forward rapidly.
During an exclusive interview with Reuters at the Vatican on June 17, Pope Francis expressed high optimism for improving ties with China. His remarks immediately won a positive response from China’s foreign ministry.
The two sides do not currently have official diplomatic relations; the Holy See recognizes the Republic of China government on Taiwan. But Pope Francis told Reuters from his Vatican residence that Beijing and the Holy See are “at a good point” now.
“Dialogue is a risk, but I prefer risk rather than the certain defeat that comes with not holding dialogue,” he said. “As for the timing, some people say it’s ‘Chinese time.’ I say it’s God’s time. Let’s move forward serenely.”
Pope Francis even claimed that “the Chinese people merit the Nobel Prize for patience.”
He explained: “They know how to wait. Time is theirs and they have centuries of culture … They are a wise people, very wise. I have great respect for China.”
Immediately after Pope Francis’ interview was published on June 20, China’s foreign ministry replied with a positive tone.
At the press briefing on June 21, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said:
China and the Vatican have been in effective contacts. China is always sincere about improving its ties with the Vatican and has been making unremitting efforts to that end. We stand ready to work with the Vatican to ensure that our bilateral constructive dialogues and the improvement of bilateral ties could continue to achieve new progress.
As The Diplomat has been following, in recent months, Beijing and the Vatican have made a series of breakthroughs in their relationship.
In February 2017, there was already information circulating that China and the Vatican had “reached consensus” on episcopal appointments. In November 2017, Beijing and the Vatican co-organized the first-ever exchange of artworks for exhibits in both countries under the theme of “Beauty unites us.” China’s foreign ministry and Pope Francis had also expressed a strong desire to advance relations respectively on multiple occasions.
In his latest interview, Pope Francis told Reuters that the road to reconciliation with China was divided into three paths — the official dialogue, unofficial contacts among ordinary citizens, and cultural dialogue.
It’s obvious now that some fruitful results have been achieved in all these three paths.
If Beijing finally succeeds in re-establishing formal relations with the Holy See after a 70-year cutoff, it will be undoubtedly the biggest diplomatic blow yet to Taipei, since the Vatican is Taiwan’s only diplomatic ally in Europe now.
Beijing’s frequent contact with the Vatican is in line with its recent aggressive moves to squeeze Taipei’s already limited international space.
As of now, Taipei has only 18 diplomatic allies remaining — the majority of them poor nations in Central America and the Pacific. Over the past two years, a total of four countries — São Tomé and Príncipe, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Burkina Faso — have abandoned Taipei for Beijing.