Taiwan's Unique Relations with the Holy See and Rome

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Thursday April 28, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

The Holy See, whose territorial residence is the Vatican, is the only European sovereign entity with diplomatic ties to the Republic of China (ROC) aka Taiwan; these relations have been ongoing since 1942.

However, recent rumors and events have questioned the stability of those ties even in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. From the Vatican side, there have been off-hand remarks by Pope Francis that he would like to visit China. On Taiwan's side, the recent Gambia gambit and Kenya fiasco have exposed President Ma Ying-jeou's "flexible diplomacy" to be a limp noodle. And the illusory "1992 consensus" with "different interpretations" is proving in reality to be one consensus and one interpretation, namely that of the People's Republic of China (PRC).

Does the Holy See plan to break ties with Taiwan and reestablish relations with the PRC leaving Taiwan with no European ally? Things are not as simple or cut and dry as they seem.

Ironically in all this complexity, the ministry has a lot of control much but it needs to up its game and have a better long-term game plan. It and the citizens of Taiwan should first realize what they do have, what they do not have, and what the KMT has pretended to have. You cannot lose what you don't have but no one can take away what you do have.

The Holy See and relations with it are unlike those with other sovereign states, which are often influenced by dollar diplomacy and the need of trade. The Holy See currently has relations with about 180 states large and small, and over 80 states have embassies in the Vatican. In its mission to the world, the Holy See even has a nunciature (embassy equivalent) in Rabat, Malta and Malta has an embassy in Rome, though Malta's population is less than 430,000.

As regards Taiwan, most people are not aware that the Holy See did not recognize Chiang Kai-shek and the then-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) when they fled to Taiwan in 1949. The Holy See's Apostolic Nuncio to China remained in China. He was eventually "kicked out" in 1951 on trumped up charges of plots against the state. After that the Holy See's ambassador took up residency in Taiwan.

A second telltale and related factor is that in 1971, when the ROC lost its seat at the UN, the position of the Vatican's representative in Taiwan was downgraded from ambassador status to charge d'affaires. It has remained so since then.

Monsignor Paul Russell who for the past eight years has served vas the charge d'affaires in Taiwan, is leaving and is to be elevated to the position of Archbishop in his new assignment to Turkey. In Vatican diplomatic speak, this means he will be taking on resident ambassador status there. His replacement in Taiwan, a monsignor, will of course maintain charge d'affaires status.

The "one China" issue will always come up, since the PRC tries to place a zero sum, "only us" insistence on this. Examine how other states have finessed this. The most common way has been to changing their embassies in Taiwan to a trade or cultural affairs offices.

Unlike the Vatican, the US kept its ambassador in Taiwan in 1971. When it moved its ambassador to Beijing in the beginning of 1979, the US created the American Institute in Taiwan, which performs most of the functions of an embassy but is not called such. This was followed by the creation of the Taiwan (not the ROC) Relations Act. The Taiwan (again not ROC) Caucus with a growing 205 members in the US House of Representatives recently celebrated the anniversary of that act. The official US position on Taiwan of course remains "undecided" even after 70 years.

Many people still do not understand the important background details in any nation's "one China" stance. No one denies that there cannot be two of what is one. However that is different from accepting what territory is contained in "that one."

For the PRC, "one China" means that the democratic nation of Taiwan and Taiwan's territory belong to China. Other nations can acknowledge that this is what China believes, but that does not mean that they themselves believe or accept the same thing that China believes.

A brief comparative explanation is in order. Li Bai, the well-known Tang Dynasty poet, has written many poems on the moon; there is even one where he talks to the moon and invites it to drink with him. China could claim that since the moon is thoroughly discussed in Tang Dynasty poems it belongs to "one China." Other nations could acknowledge, accept and even agree that such a preposterous thought is what China claims and believes. However acknowledging that fact does not mean that those nations accept that the moon belongs to China or is part of its territory. Here the US position on Taiwan still remains "undecided" even though China of course constantly asks the US to repeat over and over that it has a "one China" policy.

The Holy See, which does not depend on trade deals, has a long history of diplomacy that can be traced back to the 4th century. In world affairs it plays the long game.

Unlike countries where ambassadors are honorary positions and can be appointed because they donated large sums to the president's campaign, papal diplomats have rigorous training and earn a licentiate and doctorate in canon law in the process. They also know the centuries long history of the church including its high points, low points and scandals such as Innocent III, Alexander VI, the Papal States, the Avignon Papacy and even the Western Schism when there were three Popes--to name just a few.

The Holy See has diplomatic relations with South Korea but it also could have them with North Korea if North Korea was open to it. It has established non-resident relations with Vietnam and its flexibility has allowed it to broker agreements like the bringing together of the US and Cuba. In the French-Algerian war it did not take sides and now has relations with both sides. Even the Palestinian Liberation Organization has an office in Rome for non diplomatic relations. Vatican diplomats listen more than they act and provide the Holy See with a constant flow of information from parish priests all over the world.

What the ministry should glean from this is that while other countries might break off relations with the Holy See, it does not abandon any country or nation. This is important as the ministry develops its future strategies.

If the Holy See and PRC do enter negotiations it would be a lengthy process, where the biggest questions would both be human rights and freedom of religion. Even if that happens, it would not take away the ministry's many established advantages with the Holy See. The challenge would be for an adroit ministry not to box itself into a corner with things such as the "1992 Consensus" as it develops those strategies.