18 September 2016
Pope Francis

The Sino–Vatican negotiations and the role of Taipei

Stefano Pelaggi writes for us on relations between Beijing and the Holy See, and the delicate balance with Taiwan.

The Vatican and Beijing have been playing a gruelling game in recent decades, a confrontation made by alternating openings and sudden denials, optimistic expectations and cold showers. The negative moments in this confrontation are many, such as the relentless repression of Bishops, priests and believers faithful to the Pope and the new restrictive laws launched by the State Conference on Religions held after 15 years, last April in Beijing for the first time after 15 years.

As well as some real diplomatic conflict, like ignoring the greeting telegram sent by the Pope to President Xi during his recent trip to Asia, a formality that takes place amongst all the Heads of State during the flyover of the plane of the Pontiff so far always respected by other nations.

But the Vatican and Chinese diplomats have also achieved small but significant successes, especially the important openings on the appointments of the Chinese clergy.

The whole world looks with attention to the delicate relationship between the Holy See and the People's Republic of China and Pope Francis. Like his predecessors, he has never hidden the desire of the Catholic Church to open new communication channels with China in order to give relief to the 10 million Chinese Catholics.

The US is monitoring the talks between Beijing and the Vatican very closely. The core of Obama's foreign policy, the so called “Pivot to Asia”, could be highly affected by the construction of new relations between China and the Holy See. But it is mainly in Taipei that such talks are followed with particular sensitivity in fear of consequences that are still unknown to all.

The solidity of relations between Taiwan and the Vatican does not seem to be challenged and the recent visit in Rome of Vice President Chen Chien-jen for the ceremony of the canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, appears as a further confirmation. President Tsai Ing-wen, which is leading the country since last May, repeatedly stated the importance for dialogue to seek a Sino-Taiwanese consensus on the many issues affecting and involving the "two sides of the Taiwan Strait" including the sensitive issue of the relations between China and the Vatican.

The obvious peculiarities of the Holy See's international relations have been frequently underlined, on the eve of the official mission to Rome of the Vice President Chen, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in Taipei, Wu Chih-chung said: "The Vatican is not a state like others and does not put their national interests above everything else. They are working, tirelessly, for religious freedom and the promotion of the Christian faith worldwide".

The same choice of Chen Chien-jen as Vice President is emblematic of the importance that the President Tsai attaches to relations between Taiwan and the Holy See. Chen, in fact, is a practicing Catholic in a country where Catholicism is followed by just two percent of the population but, more importantly, is well known inside the Vatican nomenclature. He received in 2010 the Order of St. Gregory the Great, and, in 2013, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem and is a very active and respected member of the Taiwanese Catholic community which, although small, has a dozen bishops and is very active in the field of education and health. Its ability to dialogue with the Holy See seems to be one of the strengths for the new Taiwanese foreign policy issues. He has been a long time collaborator of Tsai Ing-wen but he has never been active in political life, despite having already held important roles in previous governments, and in fact has never been enrolled with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) who won the last political elections in the country.

All these factors, together with the effective aid for development funded by Taipei in many Latin American Catholic countries - which often involves the cooperation of social solidarity structures promoted by the local churches have certainly contributed to the choice of his name in the presidential ticket in the the recent election.

The confrontation between the Vatican and Beijing is seen therefore, highly complex as evidenced by the decades of inconclusive negotiations, since the days of Cardinal Casaroli to date. The Holy See, until now, has always objected to establish diplomatic relations with countries that do not allow freedom of religious expression and this, together with the mode of consecration of Bishops in China are the central issues of the negotiations. As for the Bishops, China still prohibits by law the appointment of issued officials by foreign authorities.

In other countries, the issue of the appointment of Bishops has raised significant problems but there have been cases in which the dispute was pragmatically exceeded (as for Vietnam despite the absence of diplomatic relations with the Holy See) through preliminary talks that leads to a choice shared by both parties.

The situation in China, however, is much more complicated: there are still Bishops and numerous religious, faithful to the Pope and the Church of Rome, under arrest in prison and under house arrest or even disappeared. There is a huge number of Bishops selected by the Chines Patriotic Catholic Association, a body subject to the strict control of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, without any approbation from the Holy See. These patriotic Bishops, do not gather the full consent from the Chinese Catholic population, according to several independent reports.

In its two-thousand-year history the Vatican diplomacy has managed to overcome obstacles of all kinds, in various geopolitical scenarios, through long consultations and negotiations. The most delicate point of the current dispute between the Holy See and Beijing, beyond the albeit important but surmountable formalistic and diplomatic matters, lies in the freedom of expression for the Catholic clergy.

A future agreement between the two parties should also deal with the churches close to Beijing regime that have arisen in the country over the past decades. Even Pope Benedict XVI had called the parallel ecclesiastical structure, organized by the Chinese government as "incompatible with Catholic doctrine". Still those churches branched out across the country and quickly become a centre of power that, despite its marginal consistency, are strongly opposing the bilateral talks, in the fear of losing the powers and privileges acquired.

An interesting and unusual signal, finally, that confirms the importance of Taiwan in the religious-political triangle between Beijing and the Holy See, it is confirmed by the absence of Chinese protests in the occasion of the visit of Taiwanese Vice President. In the past, any similar exercise between Taipei and the Vatican had been accompanied by the Beijing grievances

This new attitude may represent a new approach demonstrating how Vatican's relations with Taiwan does not seem like a central problem. There is a possibility that the negotiations between China and the Vatican can be transformed, with the words of Vice Foreign Minister Wu Chih-chung, in “a win-win situation for both Taipei and Beijing”.


Stefano Pelaggi is Professor of Development and processes of colonization and decolonization, Sapienza Università di Roma.
Tags: china, vatican, taiwan, taipei

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