Mainland China’s tussle with Taiwan to forge ties with the Vatican has intensified since the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party took power on the island earlier this year and Beijing tries to reduce its limited number of allies around the world, according to analysts.
Relations between Beijing and the Holy See were cut in 1951 after the mainland launched a crackdown on organised religion and the Vatican is Taiwan’s only formal ally in Europe.
Deteriorating ties between Beijing and President Tsai Ing-wen’s government in Taiwan since she took office have meant mainland China has stepped up efforts to poach its allies, including the Vatican, analysts said.
“Under the governance of Tsai, who refused to acknowledge the ‘1992 consensus’, mainland China will inevitably accelerate the speed in establishing relations with the Vatican,” said Liu Xiangping, the deputy director of Taiwan affairs institute at Nanjing University.
The 1992 Consensus is the tacit understanding reached by Beijing and Taiwan that there is only one China, but each side can have its own interpretation of what that means. The mainland considers Taiwan to be a breakaway Chinese province that should be reunited with the rest of the nation.
Mainland China has its own authorised Catholic church and it appoints bishops without the Vatican’s consent.
However, in a lengthy article in the diocesan publication Kung Kao Po in Hong Kong earlier this month, Cardinal John Tong Hon said the Vatican and Beijing had reached an initial agreement that the Pope would choose from a list of candidates recommended by a conference comprising bishops from the official and unauthorised Catholic churches in China.
The bishops conference would only have the power to recommend candidates while the final decision would be left to the Pope.
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin also appeared upbeat this month about ties with Beijing.
He said there was “much hope and expectation that there will be new developments and a new season in relations with China”.
Zhou Tailiang, the head of secretariat of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, said it would like to see any agreement with the Vatican signed swiftly.
Liu Jiayan, a researcher at the Taiwan affairs institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said it was “just a matter of time” for Beijing and Vatican to establish formal diplomatic relations after a resolution on the appointment of mainland bishops was agreed.
Taiwan does appear to feeling the pressure to shore up ties with the Vatican.
Taiwan’s Vice-President Chen Chien-hun will embark on a six-day visit to the Holy See on September 2.
Chen will be accompanied by National Security Council deputy secretary-general Tseng Hou-jen, Deputy Foreign Minister Wu Chih-chung, and other officials, according to Taiwan’s foreign ministry.
“Chen’s trip to Vatican is probably to save Taiwan’s precarious ties with the Holy See,” said Zheng Zhenqing, a Taiwan affairs expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Lukacs Chang, a political science expert at the National Taiwan University, said that if Beijing managed to restore diplomatic ties with the Vatican the impact on Taiwan may be limited.
“If the Vatican drops Taiwan in the future, the impact would be small given the limited number of Roman Catholics in Taiwan, while the symbolic meaning looms large, which can be interpreted as Taiwan losing a partner in Europe,” he said. “But Taiwanese would not blame Tsai for losing allies if she can stimulate Taiwan’s economic growth.”
Taiwanese would “hate Beijing more for squeezing Taiwan’s international space,” he added.
Taiwan’s deputy foreign minister Wu said on Sunday that Taiwan should look at the dialogue between Beijing and the Vatican in a positive light and this was not a zero-sum game in which either Taipei or Beijing must lose its friendship with the Holy See.
Beijing’s attempts to isolate Taiwan after Tsai’s election victory include it re-establishing ties with Gambia in March. Relations were suspended in 1995 after the African nation recognised Taipei.