Pope Francis waves at the end of his weekly general audience in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican on Oct. 28. The Vatican is the only European state that has diplomatic links with Taiwan. (Photo: AFP)
Last week the Vatican and China agreed on a specific topic — ways to appoint Catholic bishops in China with approval from the Vatican and Beijing. But it is a worry for Taiwan.
Theoretically, the pact renewed for another two-year term has no diplomatic connotations. Not for Taiwan, the tiny country that China sees as one of its provinces.
The Vatican is the only European state that has diplomatic links with Taiwan. It troubles the independent and democratic Taiwan to see the Vatican bending toward having diplomatic ties with China.
Taiwan managed to get an assurance from the Holy See, which has had 77 years of diplomatic ties with Taiwan, that the deal is restricted to the pastoral needs of Catholics in China. The Vatican repeatedly said the pact is focused on pastoral issues.
However, when the Vatican-China deal was renewed on Oct. 22, Taiwan, officially called the Republic of China, openly expressed its fears. Taipei took up religion and human rights, two vexed subjects in authoritarian China, to warn the Vatican against cosying up to the communist leadership in the most populous country in the world, which has witnessed robust economic growth even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
China continues to threaten to annex Taiwan militarily.
Taking a leaf out the holy book of Chinese party bosses, who often talk about “communism with Chinese characteristics,” Taiwan told the Vatican that "Sinicization of religion" in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has become “nationalization of religion.”
With the Chinese Communist Party dictating all matters, “Catholics in the PRC are facing serious challenges to their faith and conscience,” Taiwan’s foreign ministry said in a statement issued on Oct. 22.
During the period when the two-year provisional Vatican-China agreement was in force from 2018, Chinese authorities removed crosses from churches and demolished churches, media reports said. In its attempt to assimilate the underground Catholic to the state-run church, the government continued a policy of harassment and detentions, they claimed.
On Sept. 1, priests in Yujiang Diocese in Jiangxi province who refused to join the official Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association were put under house arrest and banned from “engaging in any religious activity in the capacity of the clergy.” Taiwan used these religious persecutions by Beijing to warn the Vatican against further hobnobbing with China.
After the United Nations ceased to recognize the Taiwanese government in 1971, most UN member states cut ties with Taiwan, and the Vatican embassy in Taiwan is led by a chargé d’affairs rather than a nuncio, a Vatican ambassador. Taiwan’s worst fear is that the Vatican may go out of its way to establish formal diplomatic relations with mainland China, which officially expelled the Vatican in 1951.
Left with hardly any choice when to comes to choosing global allies, Taiwan had to believe what the Vatican had said.
“… Taiwan highly values this solemn commitment and has maintained close contacts with the Holy See, expressing our concern and position,” the Taiwanese foreign ministry said in its statement.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin reiterated that the agreement thus far “does not envisage the establishment of diplomatic relations.”
“For the moment there is no talk of diplomatic relations. We are focused on the Church,” he added.
However, hawks in Taiwan were not ready to rest on their oars. While the talks on the Vatican-China deal were in progress, Taiwan confirmed the US$2.37 billion purchase of arms from the US under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which guides relations between the two governments.
Before that, Taiwan had approved buying a $1.8 billion weapons package, including missiles, rocket artillery and aerial reconnaissance sensors.
Taiwan is building up its defense capabilities to discourage any possible conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Its only European ally has already and openly displayed a newfound love for China.