China Vatican Relations

link to italian version China’s reaction to Taiwan’s undisputed diplomatic success on the occasion of Pope Francis’ inauguration was composed at best. There were no Chinese dignitaries present at the inaugural Mass in Rome, because China and the Holy See have not had diplomatic relations in years. The relationship was cut off in 1951, after the Chinese civil war, when the Vatican aligned itself with the nationalists and therefore with Taiwan. Even though Beijing is recognized as China’s single representative by most of the world’s governments and the United Nations, the Vatican is one of 23 nations that still maintain diplomatic ties with Taipei. When Taiwanese president Ma Ying-Jeou landed in Rome, he had the opportunity to shake hands with world leaders to which he normally would have been denied access by Beijing’s influence. In his first visit to Europe – formally neutral territory – since 2008, Ming-Jeou had talks with Angel Merkel and Joe Biden, while China’s absence was a stark contrast to the ecumenicalism of the occasion. Faced with Taiwan’s PR victory, built upon the positive attention focused on the Vatican leading up to Pope Francis’ installation, China went no further than a formal protest, the tones of which were hardly inflammatory. Beijing sent its regards to the new Pope, while the spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry cautioned, “We hope the Vatican will take concrete measures to gradually remove obstacles and create conditions for the improvement of Sino-Vatican relations.” Those obstacles – probably more imaginary than they are substantial – are relations with Taiwan (which, according to Beijing, should be rescinded), and Vatican’s monopoly on ecclesiastical nominations. It is a politico-religious dispute with no apparent solution. In fact, the Chinese Patriotic Church (the only one started and recognized by the Chinese government) ordained two new priests while the Pope was being inaugurated. The move – regarded as a challenge – was not recognized by the Vatican, who considers the act illegal, although China claims it was an innocent coincidence. The Chinese position is therefore nothing more than a restatement of its position, a cautious approach that seeks to avoid souring relations with Taiwan, which had been improving rapidly until only a few years ago, and waits patiently for Pope Bergoglio to state his own positions. A universal church cannot ignore China, as its dwindling membership imposes innovative solution. Even the Pope’s selection of the name Francis is open to interpretation, possibly referring to Jesuit Francesco Saverio, who died off the Chinese coast in 1552 on a mission of friendship that was ultimately completed by Matteo Ricci. In any case, China also cannot ignore the world’s first Latin American Pope, who has shown himself to be charismatic and will have a healthy influence in the United States, where the vote of 50 million Hispanic immigrants can decide Presidential elections; as a matter of fact, President Obama was among the first to congratulate the new Pope. Most importantly, the Church cannot deviate from the positions it has already taken on principle, and that have supported its behavior towards China over the past decades. A timid attempt at a rekindled relationship was made during the Pontificate of Joseph Ratzinger, but the contrasts soon returned, not in the least thanks to Beijing’s determination. And so uncertainty continues to prevail, and the advantages for both sides still balance out the risks. Beijing could improve its eccentric perception in the eyes of the world, positioning itself as a global power independent of its economic strength. Even though the times may seem ripe for the beginning of mutual recognition, it does not mean this will happen soon. The two ancient societies are well versed in the act of waiting, as they have done for so many decades, until the political requirements align themselves with the will of the Almighty. But this time Beijing may be in more of a hurry than the Vatican.

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About Alberto Forchielli

Presidente dell'Osservatorio Asia, amministratore delegato di Mandarin Capital Management S.A., membro dell'Advisory Committee del China Europe International Business School in Shangai, corrispondente il Sole24Ore - Radiocor