President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) yesterday embarked on a trip to Rome to attend the inaugural Mass of Pope Francis. His visit marks the first attendance of a Taiwanese president at a pope’s inaugural Mass, and carries diplomatic significance as the Vatican remains a strong ally of Taiwan despite constant pressure from China. The last time a Taiwanese president visited the Vatican was in 2005, when then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) attended the funeral of pope John Paul II.
Beijing had protested Chen’s visit. It refused to send a representative and filed a protest with Italy for issuing Chen a visa.
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Vanessa Shih (史亞平) confirmed Italy has arranged for a courtesy visa for the first couple to meet international conventions.
However, in light of Ma’s Vatican trip, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Yang Yi (楊毅) said Beijing will pay close attention to the trip as it does not want any incidents to jeopardize the peaceful development of cross-strait relations.
As expected, Beijing also renewed its calls for the city-state to sever ties with Taiwan upon the election of the new pope and recognize Taiwan as an inseparable part of China.
The statements came immediately after Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) completed his formal transition as leader. As Ma seeks to interact with world leaders and promote Taiwan’s international reputation during the trip, he must take the latest message from China as yet another reminder that it will not stop its suppression of Taiwan’s international identity and that unification remains its only goal.
Former American Institute in Taiwan director William Stanton recently shared his concern about the Ma administration’s tilt toward China, saying that Taiwan’s cross-strait strategy of maintaining the “status quo” is an illusion as Taiwan is dependent on China economically, while China continues to grow stronger.
He also reminded the Ma administration that the Chinese Communist Party has given no indication that it would actually support democracy or brook any challenge to its authoritarian rule.
China’s reaction to the election of the new pope and Ma’s attendance at his inaugural Mass underlined Stanton’s observations, and the Ma administration should ponder on Stanton’s comments as it further deepens cross-strait ties by opening Taiwan to more Chinese tourists and students, while establishing reciprocal offices on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
In response to China’s threats and warnings following the election of the new pope, both Ma and the Holy See stressed the strong ties between the two sides and the fundamental shared values of a desire for peace, respect for human rights, religious freedom and democracy.
It is these shared values that have kept the ties between Taiwan and the Vatican strong for 71 years, while China has failed to improve its notorious record on human rights or democratic movements.
During Ma’s visit to the Vatican, the government must be aware of any moves from China to hinder Ma and the delegations’ opportunity to promote Taiwan, or diminish the nation’s sovereignty.
The nation should also strengthen efforts to advocate freedom, peace and democracy and join the Vatican, as well as other countries, in monitoring China’s handling of human rights issues.