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The details of the Vatican's 2018 deal with China regarding the appointment of bishops have never been publicly disclosed. What we do know about the Sino-Vatican agreement is deeply worrying. But its potential consequences for Taiwan have yet to emerge fully from the fog of rumor, leaks, and speculation that has accompanied the still-secret deal. 

Viewed simply as a China-Vatican issue, the deal has been bad enough. It abandons faithful Catholics to a state-sponsored Church that is steadily incorporating the ideology and iconography of China’s leader Xi Jinping. Also deeply distressing is the Vatican’s near-silence on China's human rights abuses, including its genocidal campaign against Muslim Xinjiang. 

But the damage may go further. As the Vatican seeks to regularize its relationship with the communist People’s Republic of China, some fear Beijing is increasingly pressuring the Holy See to abandon its official diplomatic ties with Taiwan (officially known as the Republic of China). The Vatican’s reassurances to the contrary have been lukewarm at best. Upon renewing the provisional Sino-Vatican agreement with Beijing last year, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin said simply: “For the moment there is no talk of diplomatic relations. We are focused on the Church.” 

Unfortunately, that has never been China’s focus, especially not now. Xi Jinping is escalating efforts to conquer Taiwan, something central to what he calls “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Menacing sorties by fighters and bombers from the mainland are mounted almost daily in an effort to test and gradually wear down Taiwan’s air defenses. If China could persuade the Vatican to abandon Taiwan, it would erode the island's self-confidence, demoralizing its beleaguered citizens.

That the mainland and Taiwan are both called “China” is the legacy of a civil war that never really ended. Although the communists declared victory on the mainland in 1949 on behalf of a new People’s Republic of China, the leaders of the defeated Nationalist Party had by then simply crossed to Taiwan. There, they continued to claim legitimacy as the Republic of China, the name under which they had ruled since 1912. As persecution of the Church worsened on the now-communist mainland, the Holy See’s diplomatic mission also shifted to Taiwan. 

Sheltered by the U.S. 7th fleet, the Republic of China survived on Taiwan, flourished economically, and slowly evolved into something entirely new. Military rule gave way to democracy, in part because enlightened leaders saw popular legitimacy as a prerequisite for winning the international support needed to keep China at bay. Over time, new generations on the island came to see themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. The pretense of ruling all of China was carefully set aside as newly-enfranchised citizens began to focus more intently on establishing human rights, good governance, and rule of law on their island home. 

Care was—and is—required because any change in official nomenclature is a casus belli for China. Communists may revile the name “Republic of China,” but they have, until recently, been willing to live with the fiction that Taiwan is today exactly what it was in 1949, a remote province sheltering a defeated but unambiguously Chinese opponent. 

Taiwan remains trapped in this fiction because it preserves the peace, albeit an uneasy one, and has allowed the island a modest, ever-contested presence on the international stage.

Taiwan has, as the Republic of China, maintained full diplomatic relations with a number of states, a community that is steadily shrinking in response to China’s unrelenting mix of bribery and pressure. Recognition from other states helps Taiwan support its claim to international legitimacy. And no diplomatic partner does more to bolster that claim than the Holy See.

Many Taiwanese have come to believe that the Vatican's official recognition is an acknowledgment of their embrace of democracy, human rights, and religious freedom. It also gives Taiwan’s leaders a chance to be seen and heard in Europe, on a stage that China cannot obstruct. That’s important, because while many countries that do not officially recognize Taiwan do maintain some presence there, relations are carefully circumscribed and do not include the personal, leader-to-leader exchanges so central to modern diplomacy.

Losing the recognition of the Holy See would be a disaster for Taiwan, almost certainly hastening the departure of its fourteen remaining diplomatic allies. It might be argued that any deal, even a deal with the devil, is worth it if it enables the growth of the Church in China. But this gets at one of the most frustrating aspects of the Vatican’s ill-considered diplomacy with China: It has at its heart the delusion that China’s communist rulers will somehow allow the Catholic Church to flourish on the mainland. 

China’s communist party will tolerate no rivals. The party already forces faith communities to accept its control, a prelude to their transformation into bloodless and compliant NGOs drained of all meaning. Xi Jinping has commanded that religion be “sinicized,” which really means remade in his image and likeness.

The Vatican, which has less than nothing to show for its deal with Beijing, is now particularly vulnerable. China’s hard-nosed negotiators always up the ante as an opponent’s desperation mounts. It is inconceivable that they are not stepping up the pressure to abandon Taiwan. 

In matters of diplomacy, as in matters of faith, doing nothing is sometimes the best option. Where Taiwan’s fragile international status is concerned, it’s currently the only option, a reality that the international community, including the Holy See, must communicate to China clearly, consistently, and urgently. 

Stalin is said to have underestimated the true power of the papacy when he flippantly asked how many divisions the pope has. There is reason to worry that Pope Francis and his diplomats have overestimated the value of relations with Xi and his regime. Seduced by China’s growing power and influence, they risk forgetting that Vatican diplomacy must be defined by its moral dimension: its dedication to peace, justice, and human freedom. A Sino-Vatican agreement that further isolates Taiwan would endanger all three.

David Mulroney is Canada’s former ambassador to China and a former president of the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto.

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Photo by 毛貓大少爺 via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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