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China, Taiwan, and Core of Vatican Diplomacy 

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China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

China, Taiwan, and Core of Vatican Diplomacy 

When it comes to the Holy See, neither Taipei’s nor Beijing’s typical tactics for wooing diplomatic allies are effective.

China, Taiwan, and Core of Vatican Diplomacy 
Credit: Depositphotos

After the 2024 presidential election in Taiwan, Nauru immediately severed ties with Taipei and resumed diplomatic relations with Beijing. Lionel Aingimea, Nauru’s minister of foreign affairs and trade, told CCTV reporters that breaking off ties with Taiwan will bring new opportunities for Nauru’s development.

Following Nauru’s diplomatic switch, Taiwan is left with only 12 diplomatic allies. In other words, out of over 190 countries in the world, only 12 are willing to accept diplomatic envoys from the Republic of China under the terms of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and accord them appropriate treatment and courtesy.

The Holy See is one of these 12 diplomatic allies, and it is the only country located in Europe among them. Not only does the Holy See have an embassy in Taipei, but Taiwan also has an embassy near the Vatican City in Rome, Italy, where the ROC flag is raised on the embassy’s facade.

This embassy in Rome holds deep significance. It serves as a reminder to the people on the bustling streets of Rome – people from all around the world – that the Republic of China exists and continues to exist.

Since China’s Reform and Opening in the 1980s, Beijing has gradually opened its doors step by step to foreign missionaries. With increased interaction between mainland China and the Vatican, many are concerned about the Holy See severing ties with Taiwan.

Since 1979, the Holy See has ceased to send archbishop-level ambassadors to serve as the head of its embassy in Taipei, instead appointing a monsignor to serve as chargé d’affaires – a temporary representative during vacancies of the Holy See ambassador position. 

In 2018, the Vatican and China signed a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops, which was initially set to last for two years. When this interim agreement was extended for the first time in 2020, rumors circulated in the media that the negotiation process included plans to establish a “papal liaison office.” In the spring of 2024, the Holy See will again enter into negotiations for further discussions and planning for the upcoming two-year period.

How will the Holy See arrange its diplomatic relations with China, especially amid the relative decline in the power of the United States and the rise in power of the European Union, China, and Asian countries, is of greater concern to the international community. How will the Holy See choose?

The Vatican is quite wealthy, and its existence is not tied to improving the economic conditions of its citizens. Therefore, practices such as aid diplomacy and technical diplomacy do not influence the Holy See’s decisions, and neither Taipei’s nor Beijing’s typical tactics for wooing diplomatic allies are effective. Increasing the number of Catholic followers is also not the core purpose of Vatican diplomacy, as the key to the Church is faith itself and living out that faith, rather than just numerical statistics. Therefore, the true agenda within the Holy See’s heart is hardly about wealth, numbers, or even the issue of bishop appointments that are often mentioned in public discourse.

Many people have argued that the Vatican has made more concessions to China than to Vietnam, allowing Beijing to intervene in the appointment of bishops. However, this is actually a distorted interpretation. The content of the China-Vatican agreement has never been disclosed, and all claims about the details are mere speculation

In fact, the Vatican is keen on signing bilateral agreements with various countries. Since the 18th century, the Holy See has signed a total of 266 agreements, most of which are still in effect. More than half of these agreements were signed after the Second Vatican Council in the 20th century. Through these international legal documents, the Holy See has been able to safeguard its own interests while also embedding Catholic values into the domestic laws of various countries.

The appointment of bishops is a key issue in such bilateral agreements. Even when signing agreements with predominantly Catholic countries, the Holy See also includes clauses regarding “appointments of church personnel,” which typically contain two major concepts: first, that secular states respect the authority of the Pope to appoint personnel at all levels within the Church, and second, that the Catholic Church, out of respect for secular states, will notify the local authorities before announcing new bishop appointments. In that regard, the temporary agreement between the Vatican and Beijing on the appointment of bishops is no exception. It revolves around how these two major concepts can be demonstrated while respecting each other.

Due to the established negotiation mechanism, the Vatican and China continue to negotiate various ecclesiastical issues, expanding the content of agreements. In addition to negotiating the establishment of a representation office for the Pope himself, other issues also expected to gradually emerge in the negotiation process with China, following the usual practice of Vatican external negotiations. These topics could include: negotiations on diocesan division, establishment of special resident papal representatives, the dispatch of papal envoys for visits, Church tax exemptions, freedom to establish Catholic educational and social welfare institutions, freedom for the Church to engage with media and spread faith, freedom for the Church to establish Catholic media, and the teaching of the Catholic faith in Catholic schools.

The Holy See is content to take its time; after all, the Catholic Church’s missionary work in China has been ongoing for 500 years, since the arrival of St. Francis Xavier in East Asia in the 16th century. He was followed by figures like Ven. Matteo Ricci, Xu Guangqi, Fr. Giuseppe Castiglione, Fr. Ferdinand Verbiest, Fr. Theophile Verbist, Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Cardinal Celso Benigno Luigi Constantini; many priests, nuns, monks, and lay collaborators from various dioceses and religious orders have joined the cause with zeal. They have also nurtured local clergy in China and initiated the Chinese Rites Controversy.

The Holy See is not in a hurry to make adjustments in diplomacy; the key is the steady and smooth progress of the Catholic Church’s ecclesiastical work, whether in the People’s Republic of China or in the Republic of China.

Political leaders in Taipei often assert that Taiwan is a country of religious freedom and there is no conflict in ecclesiastical matters with the Vatican. However, in reality there are sticking points. To cite one example, the Theology Institute hosted by the Vatican in Taipei since 1967 was unable to independently confer degrees for many years. It was not until after signing a bilateral agreement in 2012 that the Theology Institute gained independence and was able to confer Bachelor’s (S.T.B.), Master’s (S.T.L.), and Doctoral (S.T.D.) degrees according to the Vatican system.

This is just one of the ecclesiastical issues that Taiwan’s leaders must understand and discuss with the Holy See. Other issues such as freedom for Catholic elementary and secondary schools to teach Catholic faith, the legal personality of dioceses, Church tax exemptions, Church marriages, etc., are also subjects for dialogue and agreement with the Vatican.

Today, the Holy See simultaneously engages with both sides of the Taiwan Strait, seemingly without issue. In 2017, during a period when the outside world was paying attention to the thawing interaction between Vatican and Beijing, according to the Treaty Database of Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the ROC Anti-Money Laundering Division, Investigation Bureau of the Ministry of Justice, and the Holy See Financial Information Authority signed a “Memorandum of Understanding Concerning Cooperation in the  Exchange of Financial Intelligence Related to Money Laundering, Associated Predicate Offenses and Terrorism Financing.”

What the Holy See is concerned about mainly is ecclesiastical matters, not diplomatic politics. To promote diplomatic relations with the Vatican, it is necessary to understand the traditions of the Catholic Church over the past 2,000 years, the value judgments it has made in response to modernity since the Second Vatican Council, and how much effort leaders in Taipei and Beijing are willing to exert in responding to the Vatican’s core concerns in diplomacy.