ROME – Fans of Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” may remember an episode in which President Bartlett is running for reelection and the White House is negotiating with his Republican opponent over debates. Bartlett’s side wants five and his opponent none, so they settle on two but are still divided over format.
Trying to figure out how to get the other team to budge, Bartlett at one point says the problem is that his side has nothing the other wants. One of his aides then says: “Sure we do … We have exactly one thing left that they want.”
His point is that by agreeing to just one debate, not two, they may be able to get the format they want. Bartlett goes on to crush his opponent in that exchange, and cruises to reelection.
The story comes to mind in light of a series on Crux over the last few days by Senior Correspondent Elise Harris, who was reporting from Taiwan. In the abstract, one might wonder why the Vatican even bothers with its diplomatic relations with Taiwan today, since it seems reasonably obvious that one day, sooner rather than later, they’ll downgrade the papal mission in Taipei in favor of diplomatic recognition by Beijing.
So, why prolong the inevitable? Perhaps one way of answering the question is that being the lone state in Europe to recognize Taiwan leaves the Vatican with exactly one thing China wants.
It’s long been clear what the Vatican wants from China, and it’s not a short list.
First, Rome wants the ability to help shape the international agenda that comes from full diplomatic relations with one of the world’s economic and military superpowers, and a nation whose population represents almost one-fifth of humanity.
Second, the Vatican wants greater religious freedom in China, not only for the small Catholic minority there but for other religious subgroups as well, including Uighur Muslims in the northwestern part of the country.
Third, the Vatican wants to finally heal the historic breach in China between an above-ground and an underground church, and it sees normalization of its relationship with the Chinese government as key to making that happen.
The question has always been what, exactly, the Vatican has to offer in return, and the honest answer is precious little.
As is well chronicled, in September 2018 the Vatican and Beijing struck a deal over the appointment of bishops in China that reportedly afforded China’s Communist authorities a significant role in identifying candidates for the episcopacy, albeit subject to papal approval.
(The caveat “reportedly” is obligatory since neither China nor the Vatican ever released a text of the agreement or communicated much about it, despite the fact that the 1980 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties supposedly bars secret agreements.)
Many analysts at the time regarded the deal as one-sided in favor of China, an impression reinforced when several church closures and other crackdowns on Catholics in the country followed in short order.
As Harris reported for Crux, an official of the Taiwanese bishops’ conference seems to be sending gentle signals that Taiwanese Catholics should be prepared for the day when the Vatican gains diplomatic relations with Beijing, which would necessarily mean a shift in the status of its ties with Taiwan. That’s a slightly different, and perhaps more realistic, tone than the one currently being struck by government officials.
Father Otfried Chan, Secretary General of the Chinese Regional Bishops’ Conference, which covers Taiwan, said he thinks the status of relations could eventually change, but is convinced that no matter what happens, the Vatican will not “abandon” Catholics in Taiwan.
Interestingly, Chan also floated the possibility that the deal over the appointment of bishops doesn’t even exist on paper, that it’s basically no more than a gentlemen’s agreement, and that its substance has been belied by the new wave of oppression China launched on religious communities after it was announced.
In any event, the question becomes: Having apparently ceded to China a fair bit of what it’s always wanted, which is control over positions of religious leadership in the country, what leverage does the Vatican have left to get China to yield the ultimate reward, which is full diplomatic relations?
Taiwan, honestly, would seem to be it. Granted, China may not care much in the abstract about the Vatican’s general attitude towards geopolitics, but it does care about isolating Taiwan diplomatically. Enticing the Vatican to follow the rest of the Old Continent presumably would have some perceived value for Beijing.
Something for the Vatican’s diplomatic corps to consider might be whether this would be a good time to double down on its relationship with Taipei. Cultural exchanges, for instance, could be augmented, or a joint venture on some matter of shared concern, such as clean energy, could be announced. Perhaps a Taiwanese priest could be appointed to a prominent Vatican position, which would certainly be read as a statement of solidarity in international circles.
All that could remind China that the Vatican still has a card of its own left to play, and it could also arguably leave Rome in a stronger position to insist on protections for Catholics in Taiwan when the day inevitably comes that the papal embassy relocates from Taipei to Beijing.
Doing so wouldn’t have to be a cynical exercise in puffing up the relationship with Taiwan only to dump it when a bigger prize comes along.
Instead, it could be a healthy reminder that despite being one of the world’s smallest states, the Vatican often punches above its diplomatic weight, and that being on good terms with the planet’s most important “soft power” does have its advantages.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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