Is Pope Francis Ditching Taiwan For China?

The Vatican is one of Taipei's few remaining political allies, but the Holy Father's desire to deal with the mainland may end that.

This photo taken on May 11, 2016 shows villagers outside the Catholic church in Changjing, in China's southern Guangxi region.
The finishing touches are being put to a new museum in Dingan, the village where French missionary Auguste Chapdelaine died in 1856 and just a few kilometres from Changjing where he lived, celebrating the patriotism of his execution and condemning the spiritual opium of religion. / AFP / GREG BAKER / TO GO WITH China-culture-religion-Roman-Catholic-politics,FEATURE by Benjamin Carlson        (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)
This photo taken on May 11, 2016 shows villagers outside the Catholic church in Changjing, in China's southern Guangxi region. The finishing touches are being put to a new museum in Dingan, the village where French missionary Auguste Chapdelaine died in 1856 and just a few kilometres from Changjing where he lived, celebrating the patriotism of his execution and condemning the spiritual opium of religion. / AFP / GREG BAKER / TO GO WITH China-culture-religion-Roman-Catholic-politics,FEATURE by Benjamin Carlson (Photo credit should read GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

The Vatican’s announcement of an impending deal with China along political and religious dimensions has sparked serious debate among Catholics worldwide. But for Taiwan, it raises diplomatic worries, not doctrinal ones. The Holy See is one of now just 21 governments that grant diplomatic recognition to Taipei instead of to Beijing. As the democratic island struggles against the suffocating pressure of its continental neighbor, what does it mean for one of its few unambiguous allies, and perhaps the one with the greatest soft power, to negotiate terms of agreement with Beijing?

The latest blow has come in the tiny African island nation of São Tomé and Principe, which has just broken off ties with Taipei and is set to re-recognize Beijing after ditching it in 1997. But since the electoral victory this year of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Tsai Ing-wen, seen by Beijing as dangerously pro-independence, Taiwan has faced increasing antipathy from China, which has curtailed the number of Chinese tourists allowed to visit and repeatedly blocked Taiwan’s participation in multilateral organizations, including the UNFCCC, the global climate change body, and the International Civil Aviation Organization, the agency responsible for flight safety.

This comes despite Tsai’s moderation. She must respect the wishes of the Taiwanese people, who have registered deep concern about drifting too close to an acquisitive China. But more than any other leader, she has reined in the radical, pro-independence elements in her party and pulled the DPP to the political center. Despite real stretches by Tsai, this was still not enough for Beijing, which has ratcheted up pressure accordingly.

Signs of trouble already appeared in March — after election results were in but before Tsai assumed office. China established diplomatic relations with Gambia, which had previously broken off ties with Taiwan, raising concerns that it might try to peel off additional allies — as has just happened with São Tomé. There are now worries that the Vatican could be the next ally poached, especially after the Catholic Church’s top diplomat, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, announced “expectations for new developments and a new season of relations” with China.

Though officials in Taipei have publicly proclaimed that ties are stable, and graciously expressed support for dialogue and greater religious freedom, they are quietly concerned that relations with the Vatican could be severed, if not this year, then one day in the future.

Of the 190 plus countries in the world today, 20 nations, plus the Holy See, now recognize Taiwan, using the formal name Republic of China (ROC), with its capital in Taipei. The remainder officially recognize the People’s Republic of China, ensconced in Beijing. Some nations such as Panama have had continuous relations with Taiwan since its founding. Other ties are to small island states subject to a diplomatic tug of war with China, periodically fueled by development aid. Many nations — including the United States and numerous countries in Europe — engage in a vibrant trading relationship and maintain de facto relations with Taiwan through economic and cultural offices that function as embassies.

This is a remnant of Cold War conflicts. The ROC government historically claimed all of China, Mongolia, Tibet, and Taiwan, even after it was driven to the island, which it had occupied in 1945. Today, the government no longer actively pursues this claim, and in 1991, then-President Lee Teng-hui renounced “the use of force to reunify China” and acknowledged “Beijing’s rule on the Chinese mainland” as a gesture of goodwill. China, in contrast, has never renounced the use of force to acquire Taiwan.

For more than six decades, the Holy See has recognized Taiwan, sticking by it even after the island’s largest allies ditched it — diplomatically — in the 1970s. Though the Vatican originally kept its representative on the Chinese mainland after the Communist takeover in 1949, the diplomat was expelled shortly after. The relationship with the People’s Republic has been testy ever since, particularly fraught over the appointment of bishops.

Catholicism has a long history in China, including a spate of missionaries and advisors during the Qing Dynasty. The community has persisted, even through the darkest days of the Cultural Revolution, when it was attacked as an invasive force. In contrast, Catholics in Taiwan have historically been granted the protection of law, and the church functions much as it does in any other country. Decades of growth have resulted in a flourishing community of 300,000 practicing Catholics, including Taiwanese Vice President Chen Chien-jen.

Pope Francis maintains the church’s right to freely choose religious leaders, but the Chinese Communist Party insists that it should dictate the process of selection. Conflicts such as this have forced mainland Chinese Catholics to choose between a government-sponsored church that rejects the primacy of the pope and worshipping — as apparently half of the estimated 9 million to 12 million Chinese Catholics do — in unregistered or “underground” churches that proclaim loyalty to Rome.

Despite such challenges, relations have lately smoothed, due to concerted efforts by the Catholic Church, which remains interested in ministering to its flock across the Taiwan Strait. Critics of these negotiations, such as Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, have raised concerns that the Vatican is being hoodwinked by the Chinese Communist leadership and that the church might backslide on matters of religious and human rights. Other observers are more optimistic, believing talks will create space for the Catholic Church to develop in China without conceding too much ground on spiritual tenets.

Vatican and China watcher Francesco Sisci anticipates a wide-ranging “concordat” that secures the church and pope’s primacy in religious teaching while deferring to the Chinese government in worldly matters. The gray zone in between would require constant negotiation. Given the resurgence of faith communities in China in recent years, this type of agreement may even open the doors for broader religious freedom, by fully separating civil affairs from spiritual ones, thus insulating them from too much state interference.

But the opening up has created fears that the Vatican might sell out Taiwan to purchase better relations with China. The top Vatican diplomat, Parolin, later attempted to downplay such talk, but there is good reason for concern: China’s diplomatic track record reveals that it has regularly sought to monopolize diplomatic ties with foreign states, to the exclusion of Taiwan, so a future break in official Vatican-Taiwan relations is not inconceivable.

However, indulging in such a crass diplomatic quid pro quo would not just deplete the Vatican’s political capital but undermine the very source of it. The Holy See numbers among the few global entities that are not only subject to international norms but also granted the moral authority to explicitly define them. Thus, unlike for most states, outright realpolitik is not an option for the Vatican if it wants to retain its credibility in the eyes of believers. At a time of democratic retreat across the globe, support for a fiercely free Taiwan is particularly important.

Given the historical persecution of Catholics in China and the Communist Party’s abominable record on human rights, both clergy and lay people — even the pope’s supporters — have expressed serious reservations about his approach. Will the Vatican dilute its unique legitimacy by accommodating a regime it previously denounced? Chinese Catholics broadly support religious freedom, but those who have resisted the regime for decades remain wary. Other commentators wonder: Are these far-reaching hopes guided by a realistic understanding of China or imprudent idealism? Could papal diplomats simply be too eager to reach a historic accord with a regime that has taken advantage of foreign naiveté?

In the meantime, Taiwanese allies in heavily Catholic Central America will be closely watching the church’s next steps. Taiwanese diplomats fear a major rapprochement between the Vatican and China could initiate a “domino effect” of other countries relinquishing long-term friendship with the island in exchange for new relations with Beijing. The move by São Tomé, a heavily Catholic country, has only added to these worries.

At one end of the spectrum, the status quo features exclusive recognition of Taiwan by the Vatican, with no official ties to China. At the other end, the most extreme scenario would be if the Vatican offered outright recognition of China and completely derecognized Taiwan. This would come across as wholesale abandonment of Taiwan and its Catholic community, even if important spiritual ties were to remain. Though the church is most influential through the parishes in which it ministers, not necessarily the papal nuncios who reside in the capital, Taiwan symbolically losing its last official ally in Europe will hurt.

As an alternative to sole recognition of Taiwan, a growing number of Taiwanese are hoping the Vatican could opt for “dual recognition.” Citizen activists most recently raised this idea in an open letter to Taiwanese Vice President Chen. This option would preserve Taiwan’s ties to the Vatican but would not require the Catholic Church to shun relations with China.

For anyone interested in maintaining global harmony, especially Taiwanese who would prefer to diversify their international relationships, this may even be more favorable than exclusive recognition. Other countries could see the possibility of simultaneously recognizing Taipei without rejecting Beijing and peaceably develop relations with both. The Vatican would achieve its religious aims while opening creative new horizons for peaceful international coexistence.

Finally, it is possible for the Holy See and China to reach a significant accommodation — one that resolves issues of episcopal appointments, freedom of worship, and numerous other religious matters — without addressing diplomatic recognition at all. Were the “Catholic question” to be settled as a purely religious affair, it would uphold the social interests of the Chinese people, maintain cross-strait stability, and burnish their global stature while eliding the thorny international politics.

The choice here is not only for the Vatican but Beijing as well. Despite the habitual temptation to leverage negotiations for overwrought nationalistic purposes, if Chinese officials were to forgo petty demands about Taiwan, they could instead build up durable goodwill with multiple actors. Every time China chooses to humiliate Taiwan, it frustrates the Taiwanese public and drives the wedge deeper between the two societies. Beijing also comes across as a leering international bully. By embracing its untraditional role of both state and religious arbiter, the church could play the good-faith broker, intoning magnanimity and reminding stakeholders to focus on substantive benefits, thus upholding respect for the humanity of all concerned.

Unfortunately, given China’s belligerent attitude on Taiwan’s foreign relations and the Communist Party’s stoking of nationalism for domestic purposes, better arrangements may not be forthcoming. Furthermore, if the Vatican comes across as a supplicant requesting access to the Middle Kingdom, instead of a world-class institution with unparalleled social influence, this also further reduces its negotiating power.

Given changing complexities across the strait, one hopes the issue will never become so crude as the Vatican one day horse-trading Taiwan for a chance to expand its influence in China. And although recent negotiations center on spiritual matters, political considerations will undoubtedly seep into the calculus.

Still, when Pope Francis is involved, one cannot help but hope for wiser, gentler solutions coming to pass. In these uncertain times, ethical global leadership is ever more important. It would be a shame if the Vatican abdicated its claim to it.

Photo Credit: GREGG BAKER/Stringer


Kevin Fan Hsu teaches International Policy Studies and Urban Studies at Stanford University. He co-founded the Human Cities Initiative.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola