Mon, Oct 29, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Abraham M. Denmark On Taiwan: Asia’s eyes turn toward Rome

A complex and nuanced agreement that was recently concluded between Beijing and the Vatican has the potential to significantly influence China’s future and relations between China and the United States. After decades of disagreement, China and the Holy See finalized a provisional agreement on the appointment of Catholic bishops in China. The deal would recognize seven bishops that had been appointed by Beijing, would give both sides a say in the naming of bishops, and the Pope would have the power to veto candidates. This agreement has implications for two important issues facing China — religious freedom, and the status of Taiwan.

Recent months have seen China intensify its crackdown on religious practices in China. It has been reported by a United Nations Committee that large numbers of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities have been detained, with some spending “varying periods in political ‘re-education camps’ for even nonthreatening expressions of Muslim ethno-religious culture like daily greetings. Estimates about them range from tens of thousands to upwards of a million.” The State Department has said the US Government is “deeply troubled” by the crackdown, although China has denied the veracity of these claims. There has also been a reported intensification of China’s crackdown on Chinese churches, and Beijing has already declared it alone will have the power to declare the successor to the Dalai Lama. This is the political context into which the Vatican is leaping. It remains to be seen if closer engagement with Beijing will improve China’s approach to religion, or endorse it.

Concluding this agreement also has implications for the status of Taiwan. The Holy See does not currently recognize Beijing, and is the only European country to continue to recognize Taipei. Many see this provisional agreement as clearing the path for a shift in diplomatic recognition to Beijing, which would make the Holy See the sixth country to shift recognition since 2016 — joining El Salvador, Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, Sao Tome and Principe and Panama. Taiwan would only have 16 remaining diplomatic allies, and none in Europe. The Trump administration has indicated its preference that countries that recognize Taiwan sustain that recognition. El Salvador was severely criticized by Washington when it shifted diplomatic recognition to Taiwan.

This is an issue that has yet to burst to the fore, which means that Washington still has an opportunity to shape how it evolves rather than just reacting. While enhancing the Vatican’s ability to engage the Chinese people is certainly a legitimate interest for the Holy See, it should be considered within a broader context that has significant implications for the United States, Taiwan, and broader human rights considerations.

Close diplomatic engagement about the Holy See’s plans and approach to China — both over the issue of China’s broader approach to religion and religious people and over the issue of Taiwan’s status — could be a priority in diplomacy between the United States and the Holy See. Sam Brownback, who currently serves as Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and previously served as Governor, Senator, and Congressman from Kansas, has an opportunity to play a significant role in driving this issue and ensuring it receives the appropriate level of attention and political force. This is because the Vatican’s engagement with Beijing, as important as it is, must be understood in its broader geopolitical context. Principles of human rights, and geopolitical considerations of Taiwan’s international space, hang in the balance.

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