Editor’s note: This piece was originally written early last month, we decided to run the piece as is first and publish any update information in a new and separate piece. 

The Vatican’s announcement of an impending understanding with China, though still unspecified, has sparked serious discussions among Catholics worldwide and generated immense worry in Taiwan. As the island nation struggles for international space against the suffocating pressure of its continental neighbor, what does it mean for a third country to negotiate terms of agreement with Beijing?

Over the course of the year, this correspondent visited Taiwan several times to observe and document the democratic elections and their aftermath. 2016 has witnessed many exciting changes, revealing the Taiwanese public’s growing sense of deliberation and new expectations about citizen participation. In January, the country elected its first woman president and a record number of female legislators, while the longtime democratic opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), gained a parliamentary majority for the first time,  turning the incumbent Nationalists (the Kuomintang) soundly out of power.

New political parties, including those rising out of the youth-oriented Sunflower Movement, have bloomed, while indigenous peoples have asserted their rights. Taiwan deservedly ranks among Asia’s freest democracies, as highlighted by the Freedom House assessments of political and civil rights.

President Tsai Ing-wen’s first four months in office have advanced domestic social reforms and issues of transitional justice, including a historical apology to indigenous peoples and a new law on handling political parties’ ill-gotten assets acquired during an earlier era of the Nationalists’ dictatorship that has definitively been closed.

However, dark clouds on the horizon have begun to turn public attention to the country’s relationship with China. Beijing regularly expresses unhappiness that Tsai has not behaved as solicitously (some say obsequiously) as the previous KMT administration. China’s aggressive tone comes despite Tsai’s moderation—she has reined in the more radical, pro-independence elements in her party and pulled the DPP to the political center. Moreover, the indisputable fact is that as a democratically elected public official, she must respect the wishes of the Taiwanese people, who have registered deep concern about drifting too close to an acquisitive China.

A goal of some urgency is how to rebalance the economy, so that Taiwan is not overly dependent on its larger, saber-rattling neighbor. Tsai has declared a “New Southbound Policy” to encourage more Taiwanese entrepreneurs to invest in places such as Southeast Asia, India and Australia. She has also emphasized renewing ties with traditionally friendly nations like the United States and Japan.

In the meantime, a hectoring China demands Tsai affirm commitment to a “One China” principle, by claiming adherence to the so-called “1992 Consensus.” This moniker was retroactively coined in 2000 and put into political play by the KMT in 2008, to describe earlier negotiations where each side of the Taiwan Strait had essentially agreed-to-disagree. By intoning the existence of “One China with different interpretations” and leaving the meaning somewhat ambiguous, parties move forward to address more pragmatic concerns. Despite the utility of the rhetorical sleight of hand—after all, no agreement was actually reached, but simply a sidestepping of a difficult political issue—the term has proven controversial to the Taiwanese public, particularly many DPP supporters who take issue with the “One China” aspect. To them, the “1992 Consensus” is not the only vehicle upon which cross-Straits relations can be conducted, and acceding to “One China” remains a hard precondition to swallow, because it appears to box in Taiwan’s fate instead of leaving the issue truly open for future generations to decide.

Despite all this, in her May inauguration speech, Tsai declared her “respect for the historical fact” of the negotiations “in 1992” that led to “joint acknowledgements and understandings.” She explicitly pledged to maintain the same spirit of “mutual understanding” and seeking “common ground while setting aside differences” to advance cross-Strait relations. But for Beijing, this stretch by a DPP president was still not enough, and it has ratcheted up pressure accordingly.

Disappearing International Space

In the past month, China blocked Taiwan’s participation in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the UN agency responsible for flight safety. This interference leaves a gaping hole in the sky over a key Asian travel hub, as 58 million passengers fly through Taiwan’s air space annually. Emotions remain raw over the Rio Olympics, where Taiwanese athletes were not allowed to compete under their own national flag or play their anthem when they won medals. On the eve of the Paris Agreement on climate change coming into effect—a global accord that excludes Taiwan, an island notable for its commitment to sustainability and combatting carbon emissions—China continues to block Taiwan’s participation in the UNFCCC. There are whispers that China is even trying to stymie Taiwanese NGO participation in COP22 this year, deeply politicizing an annual environmental gathering of planetary importance.

In March, after the election results were in, but before Tsai assumed office, China established relations with the Gambia, which had previously broken off ties with Taiwan. Concerns are rife that Beijing may try to peel off additional allies, now that Tsai has been inaugurated.

Of the 190 plus countries in the world, 22 nations recognize Taiwan, formally called the Republic of China, with its capital in Taipei. The remainder officially recognize the People’s Republic of China ensconced in Beijing, although many—including the United States and numerous European countries—maintain de facto relations with Taiwan through economic and cultural offices that function as embassies.

There is widespread worry that the Vatican, Taiwan’s only European ally, will be targeted next, especially after the Catholic Church’s top diplomat Cardinal Pietro Parolin announced “expectations for new developments and a new season of relations” with China.

This feeds fears among the Taiwanese public that the country’s international space will be increasingly smothered, so people are nervously watching the Vatican’s actions.

The Vatican & Sinology

From some angles, it might appear that the Vatican is selling out Taiwan to purchase better relations with China. Though publicly proclaiming that ties are stable and graciously expressing support for more contacts and greater religious freedom, officials in Taipei are internally concerned that relations with the Vatican may be severed before year’s end.

The Holy See has recognized the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan for over six decades. Though the Vatican originally kept its representative on the Chinese Mainland after the Communist takeover in 1949, the diplomat was expelled shortly after. The relationship with the People’s Republic has been testy ever since, particularly fraught over the appointment of bishops.

The Pope maintains the Church’s right to choose religious leaders, but the Chinese Communist Party insists it should dictate the process by making selections. Conflicts such as this have forced Chinese Catholics to choose between a government-sponsored church that rejects the primacy of the Pope, or worshiping—as half of Chinese Catholics do—in “underground” churches that are still loyal to Rome.

Despite such challenges, the Catholic Church remains interested in ministering to its flock across the Strait. Given the geopolitical realities in Anno Domini 2016, a variety of promising strategies for mutual recognition and social/cultural exchange could certainly be employed, such as a new model for appointing bishops currently under discussion.

On the other hand, if China insists on monopolizing all diplomatic ties, the threat of a complete break in official Vatican-Taiwan relations is real. If that occurs, could there be a way to frame the evolving relationship that smacks less of quid pro quo?

After all, many countries—at least the citizens of many countries—look to the Vatican for spiritual and moral leadership. That makes it imperative for the Holy See to preserve its reputation as an exemplar, showing humanity how to act and make choices in turbulent, ambiguous times.

Spiritual and Moral Leadership

Moral leaders, whether states or individuals, demonstrate how to fight for what is right. They teach the means to resist international bullies and allay temptation. They model principled living in a world filled with greed and disorder, evil and lawlessness. Such a critical responsibility cannot be abdicated. Indeed, the Holy See numbers among the few global entities that is not only subject to international norms, but also explicitly defines them. Thus, unlike for most states, realpolitik is not an option for the Vatican—and it most certainly cannot be the justification, whatever the final outcome.

With other Taiwanese allies in heavily Catholic Central America and São Tomé and Príncipe potentially looking to the Vatican for direction, diplomats fear a major rapprochement could somehow signal it is appropriate to end relations with Taiwan and relinquish long-term friendship in exchange for new relations with China. Without hyperbolizing, there is a moral question for the Vatican in the balance.

Taiwanese Vice President Chen Chien-jen, a devout Catholic, visited Rome this September to take part in the canonization ceremony where Mother Teresa was elevated to sainthood. With word of an agreement with Beijing in the air—a situation deeply threatening to Taiwan’s interests—one speculates that Chen may have felt both sorrow and confusion at the dilemma.

After all, presiding over the Vatican is Pope Francis, who has proven to be an especially open-minded and progressive Pontiff who has refused to condemn LGBT populations and made environmental responsibility a hallmark of his papacy. He is a leader in whom many Catholics and non-Catholics alike have placed their hopes. Since the Pope seems so much in sync with progressives globally, it’s created confusion and deep discomfort when it comes to his China policy. Are the changes his diplomats precipitating for Taiwan better than the public anticipates or worse than they fear?

What Lies Ahead

If, as the Vatican suggests, the religious and political status quo—where the Vatican recognizes only the government in Taiwan, the ROC—is set to transform, an array of outcomes are possible.

One extreme would be recognition of the PRC and de-recognition of the ROC. This would feel like wholesale abandonment of Taiwan and its 300,000 Catholics, even if important spiritual ties were to remain. Though the Church’s work is most influential through the parishes in which it ministers, not necessarily papal nuncios who reside in the capital, Taiwan symbolically losing its last official ally in Europe will hurt. Indeed, each poached ally drives the wedge between Beijing and Taipei—and especially the Taiwanese public—even deeper, creating long-lasting damage in cross-Strait relations.

As an alternative to sole recognition of the ROC, “dual recognition” appears to be acceptable to a growing number of Taiwanese. This idea was most recently raised in an open letter to Vice President Chen. Choosing this option preserves Taiwan’s ties to the Vatican, but posits equality across the Strait, and thus does not require the Catholic Church to shun relations with China.

For stakeholders interested in maintaining global harmony and for supporters of diversifying Taiwan’s international relationships, this may even be more favorable than the status quo. Other countries could see the possibility of simultaneously recognizing Taipei without rejecting Beijing, and peaceably develop relations with both.

However, given China’s belligerent attitude on Taiwan’s foreign relations, this arrangement may not necessarily be forthcoming. That the Vatican appears to be the supplicant requesting access to the Middle Kingdom drastically reduces its negotiating power.

Finally, a significant accommodation between the Holy See and China could be possible without ending recognition of Taiwan. In this third alternative, the countries could resolve issues of episcopal appointments, freedom of worship, and other religious matters without forcing an answer on diplomatic recognition.

Despite the habitual temptation to leverage situations for overwrought nationalistic purposes, by forgoing petty demands vis-à-vis Taiwan, officials in Beijing could instead build durable goodwill at home and abroad. They could uphold the social interests of the Chinese people, maintain cross-Strait stability, and burnish China’s global stature were the “Catholic question” to be settled as a purely religious affair, thus eliding the thorny international politics.

One hopes the issue is not so crude as the Vatican horse-trading Taiwan for a chance at expanding in China, though political considerations will undoubtedly seep into the calculus. But however clear the advantages of a more forbearing approach, the Communist Party’s recent actions to roil the waters by reducing tourist travel, block Taiwan’s participation in the ICAO, and broadly chill ties with the democratically elected Tsai Administration mean the Taiwanese public may have to brace for the worst.

Still, when Pope Francis and the Catholic Church are involved, one cannot help but look for a wiser, gentler solution coming to pass.

(Feature photo of St. Peter’s Basilica, at the Vatican)




Kevin Hsu

Kevin Fan Hsu is Lecturer in Urban Studies at Stanford University and co-founder of the Human Cities Initiative. He crafts open online courses and designs other educational experiences with a social mission at Skyship Design (www.skyshipdesign.net)