So far this year has been a frustrating experience for Taiwanese diplomatically. Following Sao Tome and Principe’s announcement late last year that it was terminating diplomatic ties with Taiwan, there have been reports that the Vatican, the only state in Europe with which Taiwan has formal diplomatic relations, could sever ties with the nation at any time.
Despite the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ and the Mainland Affairs Council’s efforts to downplay the reports and reassure Taiwanese that ties with the Vatican are strong, rumors continue to swirl, making it difficult to remain optimistic.
In 1922, the Vatican recognized the government in Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China. However, in 1928 it switched recognition to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government as the only legitimate government representing China.
In 1942, the Republic of China (ROC) officially established diplomatic relations with the Vatican and sent its first minister to be stationed in the Vatican. On the basis of this diplomatic recognition, the Vatican refused to establish ties with the Japanese collaborationist government in Nanjing headed by Wang Jingwei (汪精衛). Even after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the Vatican has continued to view the ROC government as the sole legitimate government of China.
Legally speaking, if the Vatican were to announce the establishment of diplomatic relations with the PRC, that would be the equivalent of retracting its 1928 recognition of the ROC government. By doing so, the Vatican would recognize the PRC government as the only legitimate government of China, as does the majority of the world.
Looking at the issues of diplomatic recognition and statehood according to international law from a Taiwan-centric perspective, the question of whether the Vatican’s approach to the “one China” principle, official diplomacy and recognition will be beneficial to Taiwan’s international status could be answered in different ways.
If Taiwan could stop being fixated on the number of diplomatic allies it has and calmly observe its relationship with the Vatican, it would become clear that it is not unreasonable — legally or realistically — for the Vatican to want to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC. Since the Vatican signed the Lateran Treaty with Italy in 1929, the former has been aware of its limited political power and made it clear that it would try to avoid getting involved in secular disputes. Although things have not always gone well, the Vatican has been trying to stay neutral, while remaining pragmatic when dealing with international affairs to protect Catholics and promote Catholicism.
The Vatican is of course concerned with the rights of the many Catholics in China, but it has yet to reach an agreement with the PRC on a number of issues, including the appointment of bishops in China. Due to their discord, the Vatican has continued to recognize the ROC as the only legitimate government of China. However, that raises the question of whether the decision to choose Taipei over Beijing and leaving Catholics in China unprotected contradicts its decision to avoid getting involved in secular political disputes.
Religious authorities should avoid getting involved in secular disputes, because the purpose of religion is to bring peace of mind and inspire good deeds. If secular China is willing to open up to religion and allow the Vatican to better protect Catholics in China, it should be something to be happy about. If that cannot happen because the Vatican continues to recognize the ROC, Taiwan should not be too concerned if the Vatican switched recognition.
President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration keeps saying that it will maintain the “status quo,” yet that has not stopped China from prying away its diplomatic allies. Recently, China has even threatened to strip Taiwan of all its allies. Should the “status quo” become impossible to maintain, Taiwanese must not let fear stand in the way of new possibilities.
As philosopher Zhuangzi (莊子) said, life and death exist side by side, and whether a thing is alive or dead depends on one’s perspective. Perhaps China’s efforts to isolate Taiwan could turn out to be beneficial to the nation, which needs to clarify its unusual and confusing relationship with China. Taiwan must let the ties be severed when the time comes, and when that happens, there is no need to feel regret or anger.
With growing diplomatic pressure from China, Taiwan can either wait for Beijing to change its mind and become friendly, or take concrete action to improve the situation.
Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lee (李大維) has said that there is more than one country that might establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan. If that is true, should the ROC lose its last ally in Europe, the government should make good use of its bargaining chips and take the opportunity to unravel its tangled relationship with China and discover new possibilities for the nation.
As the Lunar New Year approaches, people replace their old spring couplets with new ones. There comes a time when things need to change. The Tsai administration, which replaced the administration of former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), does not have to remain trapped by the identities of the ROC, Taiwan and China.
Chiang Huang-chih is a professor of law at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Tu Yu-an