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Mapping the diplomatic field

Publication Date : 19-03-2013


Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou left Taipei for the Vatican yesterday. Accompanied by the first lady and a four-member delegation, Ma will attend the inaugural Mass of Pope Fancis tomorrow and leave Rome for home on the same day. It is his first official trip to the Holy See, the only diplomatic ally in Europe of the Republic of China. We are glad Ma is to congratulate in person Pope Francis on the occasion of officially succeeding Pope Benedict XVI on behalf of the people of Taiwan. And we are thankful that the Ma visit isn't being billed as a diplomatic breakthrough.

It wasn't, though it was so billed, when President Chen Shui-bian made a visit to the Vatican in 2005 to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Chen was the first president of the Republic of China to set foot in the Vatican and the People's Republic of China, with which the Holy See wishes to normalise relations, wasn't happy to see Chen and his wife meet with the new Pope Benedict, who abdicated last month. After Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic, Beijing ousted the papal nuncio to end diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1951.

With the papal nuncio's ouster from Beijing, the Holy See moved its nunciature to Taipei. After the Republic of China was ousted from the United Nations in 1971, no papal nuncio was sent to Taipei. There is only a charge d'affaires. Diplomatic relations have continued between Taiwan and the Holy See.

When Pope Francis was elected, Hua Chunying, spokeswoman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, reiterated the two preconditions of an end to diplomatic relations with Taiwan and noninterference in internal affairs for improvement of ties between the People's Republic and the Holy See. By noninterference in internal affairs, commentators have noted that this refers specifically to the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, set up in 1957 under Beijing's Religious Affairs Bureau. The reconciliation is impossible in an officially atheistic China.

A normal condition for the Holy See to establish diplomatic relations with a country is a satisfactory level of freedom of religion, a condition that hardly any independent observer claims exists in the People's Republic. Of course, the same condition could be seen as not required for appointing a papal representative, resident in Beijing, to continue, after an interruption, the diplomatic relations established with the Republic of China in 1942. As a matter of fact, a Holy See secretary of state said in 1999 that Pope John Paul could move his representative in Taipei to Beijing anytime, if the People's Republic agreed, because the Vatican was simply changing the residence of the nuncio. In other words, the Holy See could end diplomatic relations with Taiwan and keep a papal representative in Taipei to continue the ties at the same time. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine that the Holy See would agree to switch its nunciature across the Taiwan Strait without some loosening of the Chinese government ban on religious links between the Chinese Catholics, estimated at 8-12 million in China, and the papacy.

No such loosening has been effected or is likely to occur in the foreseeable future. In fact, the Chinese authorities are hardening their attitude. One glaring example is Beijing's demand that the Holy See cancel the canonisation of 120 Chinese and foreign martyrs before and during the Boxers' Rebellion in 1900. Unless the People's Republic withdraws the demand, the infallibility of the pope compels the Holy See to withhold the appointment of a papal representative in Beijing. Another obstacle to normalisation of relations between Beijing and the Vatican - the pope's authority to appoint bishops - cannot be overcome because China refuses to accept Pope Benedict's compromise of his picking from a list of candidates prescreened by Beijing.

Diplomatic relations between Taiwan and the Holy See remain firm and solid, so long as Beijing insists on its sine qua non. It is customary for the Vatican to invite heads of state or government to attend the pope's inaugural Mass. So, the Holy See is happy to welcome Ma to Rome. This is no diplomatic breakthrough for Taiwan. But we wish Beijing would loosen control over the Catholic faithful in China as part of upholding the freedom of religion as it professes to do.


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