Possible Sino-Vatican entente will raise a diplomatic storm over Taiwan

Taiwanese Vice President Chen Chien-jen says Taipei remains an indispensable ally of the Roman Church after his recent trip to the Vatican. But Vatican is moving closer to Beijing and if it decides to cut diplomatic ties with Taipei, small countries in Latin America, Africa and Oceania that maintain formal relations with the island nation might decide to switch to China. The Roman Church will then have to reshape its relationship with Taiwan on a non-diplomatic basis. This will lead to deterioration of the current cross-strait status quo.

“An alliance of love and core values”.

Taiwanese Vice President Chen Chien-jen distilled the way Taipei views the relationship with the Holy See into these few words on his just concluded week-long visit to the Vatican City, where – among other tasks – he attended  the canonization ceremony of Mother Teresa of Calcutta on September 4.

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Taiwanese Vice President Chen Chien-jen (R) holds talks with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin

However, a number of clues apparently reveal the opposite, as the Sino-Vatican rapprochement looks set to move forward, turning Chen’s comment into pure wishful thinking.

Chen’s mission to the Vatican has been described as a move to prop up state relations between Taipei and the Roman Church. Now more than ever, while Vatican and Chinese diplomats are working to smooth differences, Taiwan runs the risk of facing a diplomatic storm.

Recent news from Hong Kong and Italy, as well as official overtures from Beijing, hint at the possible finalization of an agreement between the Chinese leadership and the Apostolic See that would allow Pope Francis to ordain, with some limitations, bishops in China.

In particular, things have turned to red alert in the island nation after Cardinal John Tong, bishop of Hong Kong, wrote in an article published by the diocese weekly Kung Kao Po in early August that the Holy See “has the right to set up special provisions to target the specific circumstances faced by the Church in China” regarding episcopal appointments.

Then, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, voiced his hopes for an improvement in the relations between the Holy See and Beijing in a speech on August 27. Taipei was quick to react to Cardinal Parolin’s words; just one day later, Taiwanese Deputy Foreign Minister Wu Chih-chung said that Taipei welcomed progresses in the Sino-Vatican dialogue and that the process underway was not a “zero-sum game” between Taiwan and China.

Dual diplomatic recognition

For all practical purposes, Wu’s statement rings hollow, much like Parolin’s remark to the Taiwanese vice president on the sidelines of Mother Theresa’s canonization day; during the meeting, Parolin told Chen that the Apostolic See’s interaction with China is dictated only by evangelical and pastoral motivations.

A  deal on bishops’ ordinations would be in fact the prelude to the establishment of full diplomatic ties between the Chinese Communist Party and the Catholic Church and, in turn, the simultaneous move by the Vatican to sever formal diplomatic links with Taipei. An outcome that would have inevitable repercussions on cross-strait dynamics, after the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) swept to power on the self-ruled island in a landslide electoral victory last January.

China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province and has often threatened to take it back, by force if necessary. In 1951, two years after the Communists came to power, prompting Chiang Kai-shek to move his Kuomintang (KMT) government from the mainland to the island and found a de facto state entity there, the Vatican nuncio (ambassador) to China was banished by the Communist Party – and, accordingly, informal diplomatic ties between Beijing and the Vatican interrupted. He then moved to Taipei, where the new Vatican nunciature to the ancient Middle Kingdom was established.

Cutting ties with Taiwan is the prerequisite for Beijing to have diplomatic relations with a nation, and the Chinese leadership has always played upon this tool to further isolate Taipei internationally.

An eventual Sino-Vatican entente will force the Apostolic See to revise its bilateral relations with Taiwan. As dual recognition with either side of the Strait is ruled out, the Roman Church will have to reshape its relationship with the island nation on a non-diplomatic basis, reproducing the model of informal ties that Taipei maintains with the United States and many other countries. Such a choice will help the Vatican handle its triangular relations with China and Taiwan, but will put the island’s system of diplomatic relations in jeopardy.

Taiwan’s foreign policy at risk

Whereas Washington is Taipei’s most important ally, the Holy See is the only diplomatic partner in Europe of the Taiwanese government and the cornerstone of its formal diplomacy. In a domino effect, if the Vatican were to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the other 21 states – mostly small countries in Latin America, Africa and Oceania – that maintain formal relations with the island might decide to switch to China. Still, in a scenario in which the Vatican nuncio is moved back to Beijing, and Taipei’s remaining diplomatic partners are motivated to embrace China, Taiwan’s limited participation in governmental and non-governmental international organizations could be called into question.

During the eight-year tenure of former Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou, the pro-Beijing leader of the KMT in charge until last May, a “diplomatic truce” was in place between China and Taiwan, with the mainland and the island nation tacitly refraining from competing over diplomatic recognitions.

In the wake of the last presidential elections, the KMT and many observers had speculated that China could end this tacit agreement if newly-elected Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the DPP, had adopted a pro-independence stance. Then, as a result of tensions over her refusal to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus between Beijing and Taipei on the “one-China” principle, the Chinese government snatched Gambia’s diplomatic acknowledgment away from the Taiwanese side in March, two months before Tsai would take office.

Returned to Taiwan on September 8, Vice President Chen talked about a successful trip to the Vatican and stressed that Taipei remained an indispensable ally of the Roman Church. Yet a mix of pragmatism and realpolitik – although it is always difficult to attribute these political patterns to the Holy See – could push Pope Francis to try to seize the big price and partly desert the island nation; the papal political opening to China might produce unintended consequences, like the probable degradation of the island nation’s framework of diplomatic relations and the resulting deterioration of the current cross-strait status quo.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He is a contributing writer to the South China Morning Post and the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor. In the past, his articles have also appeared in The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review, The Jerusalem Post and the EUobserver, among others. He has written for Asia Times since 2011.

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