China’s July talks with Vatican will have Taiwan looming in background

Mimi Lau
·7-min read

This is the second in a three-part series examining the role of the Roman Catholic Church in China and how the difficult and complex relationship between the Vatican and Beijing has shifted and evolved since the Communist Party broke diplomatic ties in 1951. This story looks at the role Taiwan plays in the relationship as both sides prepare for talks this month on extending an agreement that keeps open the channels of communication.

Beijing and the Vatican will sit down for talks this month, extending their decades-long dialogue on how the Catholic Church can function in a country ruled by the Communist Party of China. The thorny issue is who holds authority to appoint bishops in China, but self-ruled Taiwan is also a key part of the diplomatic wrangling.

Beijing broke off diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951 and founded the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which answers to the Communist Party, not Rome. While the Vatican may have been kicked out of China, it retained diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which China views as a breakaway province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary.

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A church of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association which answers to the Communist Party, not the Vatican. Photo: Reuters
A church of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association which answers to the Communist Party, not the Vatican. Photo: Reuters

The Vatican city state is now the only European nation to recognise Taiwan, which commentators say is a key reason Beijing keeps talking to the church – part of a strategy to further isolate Taipei. But another factor may be that, as China faces a wave of international criticism over the Covid-19 pandemic, positive diplomatic talks with Rome could help to improve its image.

“If issues with Taiwan had been resolved, I don’t think we would have continued with such active talks with the Vatican,” said a mainland Chinese religious affairs expert, who declined to be named. But, while the Vatican was unlikely to cut ties with Taiwan in the immediate future, “it would not be smart [for China] to walk away from talks”.

Francesco Sisci, a sinologist with Renmin University of China, said Beijing was already facing enough challenges in its international relations and it would be a “bombshell” if bridges to the Vatican were broken. A “positive relationship with Rome” was in China’s interest, he said.

“If China breaks away from [talks] with the Holy See, it will only justify the logic of all the critics out there, that, ‘even the holy man couldn’t stand China’.”

A Vatican source, who also declined to be identified, said another benefit to China of the Pope’s support was the potential to improve its relations with countries that have large Catholic populations.

The complex history of the Catholic Church in China

The Beijing-Vatican talks this month in Rome will seek to renew the 2018 Sino-Vatican agreement that expires on September 22. The detailed contents of that pact were never made public, but its key plank is a compromise on the appointment of bishops for the mainland’s 12 million Catholics.

Critics say China has failed to live up to its side of the agreement. They argue that Pope Francis approved eight bishops appointed by Beijing in the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association after the agreement was signed. However, they say, the Communist authorities did not reciprocate for bishops approved by the Pope in China’s so-called underground Catholic church which looks to Rome for authority, not Beijing.

Supporters of the groundbreaking 2018 accord, which took three decades to negotiate, say it did mark the communist state’s first willingness to share some authority with a foreign religious leader. They also note that, a month after the agreement, Beijing for the first time permitted two Chinese bishops to attend the Rome synod of world bishops, an advisory body to the Pope.

Newly appointed Taiwan Archbishop Thomas Chung An-zu, recalling the occasion, said that at the time it was “unthinkable” for Chinese bishops from the mainland – where Catholics were not considered part of the universal church – to be granted permission to travel to Rome and meet fellow clergy from around the world.

Pope Francis and Taiwan Archbishop Thomas Chung An-zu. Photo: Facebook
Pope Francis and Taiwan Archbishop Thomas Chung An-zu. Photo: Facebook

“This had never happened before. Pope Francis was so touched that he even choked back tears during mass,” Chung said, in an interview with the South China Morning Post.

Nevertheless, one of the Vatican’s goals is to reestablish diplomatic ties with mainland China, which would entail moving its embassy to Beijing. But this would not be an affront to Taiwan, the Vatican source said.

“Taiwan should not be offended if the embassy in Taipei is moved back to its original address in Beijing,” said the source, adding that it was technically incorrect to describe the Vatican as “Taiwan’s only diplomatic ally”.

“This is not accurate because the Vatican has not appointed a full ambassador to Taiwan.” The Vatican’s embassy in Taipei – known as the Apostolic Nunciature to China – has not been led by a diplomat with full ambassador credential for nearly 50 years. “But this is not to say that the Holy Father is going to give up on Taiwan, because our interest is not political.”

According to Jose Miguel Encarnacao, a Macau-based Catholic affairs commentator, the last ambassador appointed to Taipei was Australian cardinal Edward Cassidy in 1970. “The Holy See removed the title of ambassador to its representative in Taiwan after the UN recognised the People’s Republic of China in October 1971, to the detriment of Taiwan,” Encarnacao said.

In Taiwan’s recent bid to participate in meetings of the World Health Assembly – the World Health Organisation’s decision-making body – during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Vatican was the only diplomatic ally that did not vote for Taiwan’s participation.

Lawrence Reardon, an associate professor specialising in Chinese politics with the University of New Hampshire, said the question was not “if” but “when” the Vatican would recognise the mainland’s People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government.

While diplomatic recognition was a key negotiation tool, Reardon said the Vatican would not sacrifice Taiwanese Catholics for mainland acknowledgement. “Instead, the Vatican will seek to reconcile the Greater Chinese Catholic Church and ensure the integrity and independence of Taiwan Catholics along with the Hong Kong Catholics.”

Pope strays from script to avoid mention of Hong Kong in Sunday address

Chung – who will be officially installed later this month as Archbishop of Taipei to lead Taiwan’s around 200,000 Catholics – said ties would not be cut by the Vatican “even at the mainland Chinese government’s request”. He said that “in reality, the Sino-Vatican agreement has not had an actual impact on Taiwan’s relationship with the Vatican”.

The Vatican’s diplomatic office in Taiwan “should be maintained”, even if a relocation to Beijing was to take place, and the reopening of a Vatican embassy in Beijing “could happen soon if the mainland Chinese government is more open-minded and receptive towards the Roman Catholic Church”, Chung said.

That looks unlikely, considering Beijing’s continuing hostility towards organised religions and its new measures to limit both attendance at religious activities and the operation of religious charity groups.

“This is such an awkward period. We are seeing bishops are still being locked away and religious freedom is worsening on the mainland as negotiations go on between Rome and Beijing,” Chung said.

“There are some gesture changes but in reality, nothing has improved. So we are still watching. We have religious freedom in Taiwan but we will be praying for those who can’t express their faith to have the strength to carry on.”

Additional reporting by Eduardo Baptista

Read part one of this series, which investigates the agreement signed two years ago and asks if there is any potential for common ground between Pope Francis and President Xi Jinping.

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