For decades, China has pressured the United Nations and other member states to de-recognize Taiwan and recognize the People’s Republic as the “only” China. Today, only a handful of nations have diplomatic ties with Taiwan, with those few now falling away under economic pressure by China.
The Holy See is the last remaining European country to recognize Taiwan, and the heart of Vatican-China relations remains working towards one unified Catholic Church in China, with the Vatican adopting Beijing’s “one China” diplomatic policy. The signs are that this may be happening.
In recent months, as the Holy See and China have negotiated an extension of the 2018 agreement, Vatican support for Taiwan has been noticeably quiet. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Holy See was the only diplomatic ally of Taiwan which did not make an appeal to allow Taiwan to participate in the World Health Organization’s assembly meetings. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in May that the Vatican would voice its support for Taiwan through other channels.
But in July, the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post quoted a Vatican source saying that “Taiwan should not be offended if the embassy in Taipei is moved back to its original address in Beijing.”
This week, Taiwan’s foreign ministry said that it had received assurances from the Vatican that the renewal of the Vatican-China deal would not have formal diplomatic repercussions for Taiwan. This is likely true, for now, but unlikely to be because of any diplomatic commitment by the Secretariat of State to Taiwan.
The most likely reason Rome will decline to break formally with Taipei in favor of Beijing, at least for now, is that it remains one of the strongest cards it has to play in driving for a deal that might secure real freedom for the Church in China, where Xi Jinping’s campaign for the Sinicization of religion continues to impose draconian measures on Catholics.
The Vatican’s willingness to play that card, and Xi’s willingness to offer something real in return, could change dramatically if President Trump took more steps towards full recognition of Taiwan - something at once diplomatically unthinkable, and entirely plausible.
This week, the Trump administration heralded new diplomatic progress in gaining the recognition of Israel by Arab nations. The most recent announcement, that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain would assume full diplomatic ties with Israel, is the latest in a series of unlikely coups for U.S. diplomacy in the region, following the dramatic decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
When Trump announced his intention to move the U.S. embassy, many observers predicted it would provoke outrage and backlash from the Arab world, and harm prospects for peace in the region. So far, the reverse seems to have proven the case - to the surprise of many.
The administration continues to pursue aggressive trade policies with China, and has made clear its displeasure with Chinese opacity during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, China has pursued a genocidal campaign against the Uyghurs internally, while driving an aggressive foreign policy - staging increasingly bellicose claims to international waters and even sailing warships into western ports unannounced - largely without international repercussions.
But Trump has been signalling movement toward a “two Chinas” policy. In August, HHS Secretary Alex Azar met with Taiwan’s president in Taipei, the highest-ranking U.S. cabinet official to visit Taiwan since diplomatic ties were broken 1979. This week, the U.S. sent a state department official to attend a memorial service for a Taiwanese official.
If Trump continues down this path in weeks to come, and encourages other countries to follow suit, much as he did with Israel, the predictions would likely be dire. Many would forecast an immediate worsening of relations with Beijing and a slew of cyber attacks on U.S. agencies and companies. But Trump might also find willing allies in countries recently subject to intimidating and retaliatory behavior by China, like Australia and India.
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From Rome’s point of view, American recognition of Taiwan would reset the playing field between the Church and Beijing.
In the first place, China would suddenly have a much greater incentive to keep the Vatican at the negotiating table.
Thus far, Pope Francis has remained on the sidelines regarding China’s treatment of the Church on the mainland, its network of concentration camps in Xinjiang province, and its crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong, letting regional leaders like Cardinal Joseph Zen and Cardinal Maung Bo talk tough over the Roman silence. But faced with a concerted international campaign recognizing a free and democratic Taiwan and isolating Beijing, keeping the pope quiet could suddenly become a much more urgent goal for China.
Conversely, American recognition of Taiwan would free up Rome’s hand and bring China to the negotiating table in earnest.
In the face of a concerted push by America to isolate Beijing, China could actually be more incentivized than ever to open formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See, and consider making actual concessions on issues like religious freedom within the country.
While observers might assume that Xi Jinping considers Vatican relations a sideshow, if he actually considers them at all, the Vatican deal might matter for Xi’s political future.