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Analysts doubt China wants to follow Vietnam’s route to Vatican

The Vatican could still use relations with Vietnam as a prototype for dealing with Beijing, says an observer
Vietnam bishops welcome Archbishop Marek Zalewski at Hanoi Archbishop’s House on Jan. 31.

Vietnam bishops welcome Archbishop Marek Zalewski at Hanoi Archbishop’s House on Jan. 31. (Photo courtesy of tonggiaophanhanoi.org)

Published: February 13, 2024 11:29 AM GMT
Updated: February 13, 2024 11:40 AM GMT

Vietnam and the Vatican are poised to establish full diplomatic relations later this year when Pope Francis is likely to accept a papal tour invitation, which analysts said would usher in a new era of normalization and international acceptance for Hanoi.

The invitation was extended by Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong and followed the appointment of Archbishop Marek Zalewski as Vietnam’s resident papal representative on Jan. 31, a first since ties between the Vatican and Hanoi were severed at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

“Whatever issues arise affecting bilateral relations will now be taken up directly between the papal representative and the Vietnamese government,” Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said.

Importantly, the establishment of full diplomatic relations will signify that freedom of religion for Vietnam’s seven million Catholics, about 6.6 percent of the population, has been achieved and is no longer the major political issue that persisted for almost half a century.

Last steps

The breakthrough was made last July when Thuong visited the Vatican, met Pope Francis and signed off on an Agreement on the Status of the Resident Papal Representative and the Office of the Resident Papal Representative in Vietnam.

Zalewski, a 60-year-old Polish prelate, was appointed shortly after the Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, said an upgrade of bilateral relations represents quite a renewal of Vietnam’s attitude to the international community and the Church.

He said the Vatican was hoping to encourage Vietnamese authorities “along the line of greater religious freedom… but this is obviously a work in progress.” He also said a “few further steps” had to be taken before a papal tour could be finalized.

Thayer said two forthcoming trips by senior Vatican diplomats would likely complete arrangements for the first official visit by a pope. Gallagher is due to visit Hanoi in April and Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal, Pietro Parolin, will follow.

“The Catholic community’s status has been legalized and Vietnam Communist Party cadres and government officials now recognize the positive role that the Catholic Church plays in social life through charity for the poor, health care and education,” he said.

Importantly, the Church can buy property and build churches, he said, adding that seminaries are ordaining priests while the Vietnamese government has gradually lifted restrictions on the number of seminarians and ordained priests.

Catholics are also allowed to conduct public religious ceremonies and the Catholic community is expanding in numbers. However, the government can restrict the number and size of parishes and insists on prior consultations regarding the appointment of bishops and archbishops.

Thayer said a normalization of relations would enhance Vietnam’s status and prestige among the international community, more so as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Commission while alleviating concerns in the U.S. about religious freedom and human rights.

Appeasement and religious freedom

Vietnam would also gain “some leverage in its relations with the United States government, Congress and Catholic community,” including the 700,000-strong Vietnamese-Catholics living in America, he said.

“The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom presently lists Vietnam as a ‘country of particular concern,’ a designation Vietnam wants lifted,” Thayer added.

James Rooney, assistant professor of Philosophy at Hong Kong Baptist University and a Dominican friar, said the reaction of Catholics worldwide to the normalization of ties with Vietnam should be largely favorable.

“I think it would be seen in parallel with John Paul II's visit to Poland in 1979, even though this is probably not the right lens through which to view it given the quite different political aims of Pope Francis and his Secretariat of State,” he said.

“This strategy of outreach to the Vietnamese government parallels the strategy we see in China, in broad strokes, as what others have called a revitalization of 'Ostpolitik' — a kind of appeasement in order to win freedom for normal life among Catholics in these countries.”

His sentiments were backed by Bradley Murg, an academic and affiliate fellow with Pacific Forum, who emphasized the primary concern of Pope Francis in Vatican negotiations with Vietnam is and always has been the pastoral care of Vietnamese Catholics.

“The common view among Vatican analysts is the pope wants to go to Vietnam. The pope sees Asia as the future of the Church,” he said.

A Chinese roadmap

Speculation has also persisted among Vatican, Vietnam and China observers that the July agreement, Zalewski’s appointment and prospects for a papal tour of Vietnam could provide a roadmap for better ties between the Holy See and China.

Zalewski, a seasoned Vatican diplomat, was named when another Catholic bishop was ordained in China with the approval of the Vatican. That was the third episcopal consecration in the communist-ruled nation within seven days in the last week of January.

“Clearly, that strategy is the same in China,” Rooney said. “Diplomats from the Holy See have tried to imitate the same playbook from Vietnam in China, an agreement for the appointment of bishops, and this move will be a premonition of what they'd like to occur in the mainland.”

But he said China and Vietnam remain quite different.

“While significant control is exercised over the Church in Vietnam and the government remains officially atheist, the Church has moved beyond an appointment agreement and is experiencing a fuller sort of freedom there. That is not to say things are very free,” Rooney said.

Murg pointed to breaches of the “historic” 2018 agreement between the Vatican and China, allowing the pope to appoint and veto bishops approved by the Chinese Communist Party. It was renewed for a further two years in 2020 and could again be approved later this year.

“The Vietnamese needed 25 years of engagement with the Holy See, it’s been a slow process of building trust through a loosening of restrictions, adhering to commitments, head of state level Vietnamese visits to Rome, and confidence building.

“A quarter of a century of regular, constant improvement,” he said.

“Comparing this to China, which has consistently violated the 2018 agreement with Rome — the latest appointment of bishops could be seen as China seeking to adhere to the agreement as renewal approaches."

“Vietnam is a much smaller country. When a Vietnamese president goes to Rome it looks good for the Vietnamese but China — in light of its sheer size and hegemonic heft — doesn’t need those optics as much," Murg added.

“The big question is; is Vietnam a precursor to China? The answer — in my view — is no. Vietnam is not a model for China’s engagement with the Vatican,” he said.

Lingering issues

Multilateral relations between China, Vietnam, the Vatican and the West have been hampered by lingering Cold War differences with Beijing and its premier, Xi Jinping, reinforcing his old-school atheist, communist values in recent years amid a bleak economic outlook.

Thayer said the Vatican could still use relations with Vietnam as a prototype for dealing with Beijing while a papal tour of Vietnam would offer lessons for China, where Catholicism is approved but only official, registered churches are recognized.

It’s a situation that has remained unchanged since 1951 when communist power was rising and religion was an anathema, producing an oppressive system more recently felt by Catholics, Protestants and Muslims amid Xi’s emphasis on a return to core communist values.

“While China is likely to reject elements of the Vietnamese model such as giving the Church authority to appoint its own officials, the Vatican may take the view that patient, gradual diplomacy with Vietnam, initiated in 1990, offers some solace in its negotiations with China,” he said.

As an example, Thayer noted Vietnam and the Vatican established a Joint Working Group in 2009 as a regular dialogue mechanism and that Pope Francis has called on Vietnamese Catholics to be ‘good Christians and good citizens’ while praising the Vietnamese government for its cooperation.

Vietnam looks West

Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, China has used its rising economic clout to exert influence around the world. That influence is declining alongside its waning Belt & Road Initiative.

Unlike neighboring countries — Cambodia and Laos — Vietnam did not opt to rely almost solely on Chinese investors for its economic growth. Instead, its rapidly advancing economy has focused on exports to the West, almost $100 billion a year to the U.S. alone.

Its exports to China, where traditional animosities remain, are close to half that. Nor has Vietnam been accused of trying to infiltrate Western cultures and its diaspora through Confucius Institutes which had soured ties between Beijing and Western governments.

Instead, analysts said, Vietnam had maintained an open-door policy through trade that has had a knock-on effect across the cultural and religious landscapes. Rooney added that “things are moving in a slightly positive direction.”

“Vietnam is aiming to do business with other countries, especially the USA. There is no 'patriotic association' in Vietnam,' for instance, and channels of communication with the Holy See are open, without overt interference or disruption.

“I've heard some indications that things are not overall getting better,” he said. “I would, however, interpret their openness to a papal visit as a positive sign overall in what this portends for Vietnamese Catholics.

“Certainly, the Vatican's diplomatic corps will want to show in their relations with Vietnam that this strategy is working — and that is much of what such a trip does, providing publicity that the Church is being welcomed and making peace with Vietnam,” Rooney said.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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