ROME – Not so long ago, the case for the prosecution against Pope Francis’s China policy seemed to have most of the momentum on its side.

Just this May, the Vatican appeared on the defensive after Beijing repeatedly violated a controversial 2018 deal on the appointment of bishops, naming new prelates without the pope’s consent. Critics, meanwhile, harped on mounting evidence of human rights and religious freedom violations under President Xi Jinping, grousing aloud that the pope’s moral authority was at stake as he remained largely silent.

Today, however, the case for the defense seems to have found new life.

It’s not that Xi has undergone a sudden conversion to democracy, nor that China has vowed to never again act outside the terms of its provisional agreement with Rome. However, especially in the wake of the recent peace mission of Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi to Beijing, the Vatican’s policy of constructive engagement no longer seems quite so empty-handed.

When plans first began to make the rounds over the summer that Zuppi’s diplomatic efforts might include a visit to China, some observers wondered aloud if Beijing would even agree to take a meeting, since China and the Holy See don’t actually have diplomatic relations – or, if they did, whether Zuppi would be shunted off to a minor official, implying a lack of interest.

Instead, the 67-year-old Zuppi, president of the powerful Italian bishops’ conference, met Thursday with Li Hui, the Chinese Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs, who was tapped in April as China’s point man for the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It was, in other words, a high-level encounter, suggesting what Zuppi himself described as “great attention on the part of the Chinese government.”

In comments upon his return to Italy to Tg2000, the official media platform of the Italian bishops’ conference, Zuppi said he’d had “a frank discussion with the envoy for Ukraine, with an important exchange of views and prospects for the future.”

For the record, the encounter between Zuppi and Li was an absolute first, in the sense that never before had a Vatican envoy met a representative of the Chinese government in Beijing to discuss a matter of international policy.

In another sign of momentum, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Thursday that Moscow is expecting a second visit by Zuppi, after his first outing to the Russian capital in late June.

“The Vatican is continuing its efforts. The papal envoy will come back [to Russia] soon. We are ready to meet with anyone, we are ready to talk with anyone,” Lavrov told the state-owned TASS news agency.

It was almost as if, watching Zuppi in Beijing sitting down with the architect of Beijing’s Ukraine policy, Lavrov didn’t want to feel left out.

It’s also significant that a Vatican statement after the encounter said that Zuppi and Li had discussed not only the broad prospects for peace in Ukraine, but also restarting the grain deal which Russia abandoned in July.

“In addition, the problem of food security was addressed, with the hope that the exportation of grains may soon be guaranteed, above all in favor of countries most at risk,” the statement said.

Should Russia agree to reactivate the agreement, the Vatican thus would be in a position to claim some share of the credit.

The sense of common cause on Ukraine between Rome and Beijing comes in the wake of the key role played by Xi and China in the expansion of the BRICS alliance (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to include six new members (Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), together representing 36 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product and 47 percent of the global population.

The expansion reflects Xi’s ambition of creating a counterweight to the G7 in global affairs, and, more broadly, a more multilateral world order no longer dominated by American interests (and, for that matter, not denominated in American dollars.)

That’s a vision which roughly dovetails with Pope Francis’s own desire to reposition the Vatican as no longer a Western institution, even if geographically it remains within the boundaries of Western civilization. In that light, China likely will be more and more inclined to see Francis as an ally.

For his part, Francis has missed no opportunity to signal fondness for China, including a public shout-out to the “noble Chinese people” during his recent visit to Mongolia, calling China’s relationship with the Vatican “very respectful” during his return flight to Rome, and hailing China as “very open.”

Even if the wheels of change often grind even more slowly in China than in Rome, it’s difficult not to see these developments as part of a trajectory which will lead, sooner or later, to diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China. In the meantime, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin has floated the idea of creating a permanent liaison office for the Vatican in Beijing, and so far no one in power in China publicly has said no.

Of course, this strategy of “small steps” won’t automatically resolve all the difficulties in the Vatican/China relationship. It did not escape the attention of observers, for example, that Zuppi’s mission received virtually no mention at all on official Catholic media platforms in China, reflecting a government policy of keeping diplomatic issues separate from the life of the church in the country.

Put differently, it’s a way of saying that we may be able to do business on Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to loosen controls over religious faith and practice.

The Vatican’s gamble is that improving relations on the diplomatic and geopolitical level will, over time, also produce better treatment for the Catholic community in China. Cynics, naturally, will point out that’s eerily similar to claims made decades ago that greater economic freedom in China would naturally lead to greater political freedom too, a thesis which Xi’s administration seems to be doing its best to confound.

For now, however, Vatican diplomats can at least take comfort that a relationship which until recently seemed fairly one-sided, with most of the apparent benefits accruing to Beijing, finally seems to have produced a payoff for Rome as well.

None of this means criticism of Francis’s China policy will evaporate. The next time Beijing appoints an unauthorized bishop, or bulldozes a church, or sentences a Catholic activist to jail – and, let’s face it, there will be a next time – dissidents will once again howl, accusing the pontiff of complicity for not pushing back harder.

What recent events do suggest, however, is that when such arguments inevitably recur, the other side will at least have some fresh ammunition in its arsenal.