Vice President Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) returned home on Sept. 8 from a trip to the Vatican for the canonization ceremony of Mother Teresa. Chen, a Catholic, met with Pope Francis and also visited a church, where he signed a guest book as “Vice President, Taiwan.”
His visit was expected to help enhance diplomatic ties with the Vatican amid growing concerns that relations might end. One day after his return, the Vatican sent a delegation led by Cardinal Edwin O’Brien for a five-day visit to Taiwan, during which it met with President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).
The Papal State is Taiwan’s only European diplomatic ally, but it is widely believed that the Vatican is interested in establishing diplomatic ties with China.
As an authoritarian country which advocates communism and atheism, China is hardly compatible with the Vatican. Since Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) took power, the party-state has tightened control: not only has it set up tightened Internet censorship, it also demands that non-governmental organizations establish internal Chinese Communist Party branches.
It has a tight grip on religion, cracks down violently on Falun Gong practitioners and calls the Catholic Church an underground church, while its own Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association appoints its own bishops.
For these reasons, it has been difficult to normalize relations between China and the Vatican.
For many years the Vatican has been trying to establish relations with Beijing out of concern for the 13 million Catholics in China, but a major obstacle has been a disagreement over the appointment of bishops. While the Vatican appoints its bishops to work at churches worldwide, China sees such appointments as a form of political intervention. Moreover, China also demands that the Vatican sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
According to news agency reports, China and the Vatican are trying to work out a compromise. Nonetheless, the Vatican has never unilaterally broken off diplomatic ties with any nation, so severing ties with Taiwan in favor of China could damage its reputation.
In light of this situation, dual recognition has been suggested by the US-based Formosan Association for Public Affairs, a non-profit group devoted to promoting international support for Taiwan. According to this idea, Taiwan should suggest that the Vatican simultaneously recognize Taipei and China, so that it would not have to abandon Taiwan for China’s Catholics.
Such an open-minded and creative approach would show the international community that Taiwan is friendly and pragmatic, and might prove to be very helpful for future diplomatic endeavours. It is worth noting that last year Pope Francis played an important role in helping the US and Cuba resume diplomatic ties after a hiatus of more than half a century.
Hopefully Taiwan, the Vatican and China can also work out a solution that would benefit all three parties.
Since June, both Tsai and Chen have made visits to foreign leaders. Such actions are necessary to help Taiwan achieve a diplomatic breakthrough. Since UN Resolution No. 2758 was passed in 1971, Taiwan’s international space has been shrinking. With the rise of China in recent years, the circumstances have gotten even worse, but Taiwan should never stop trying to broaden its diplomatic horizons.
A look at the recent international situation shows that our leaders need to work hard on improving our ties with other nations. Taiwan must not remain passive or without a voice in the international community.
Earlier this month, the G20 and ASEAN summits in China and Laos drew US President Barack Obama and other heads of state. While such meetings do not always guarantee immediate solutions, they at least facilitate direct communication, and help reduce the risk for misunderstandings and miscalculations.
Among the leaders, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stood out as the most active. Last month, he promoted the Tokyo Olympics at the closing ceremony of the Rio Olympics by dressing up as the Nintendo video game character Mario. More recently, he traveled to Africa and Russia. This week, he is attending two more international meetings, where, among other things, he is expected to try to gain support from ASEAN members to use as leverage against China, negotiate with Xi and discuss possible plans for a trilateral alliance between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul with South Korea President Park Geun-hye.
Taiwan has long been excluded from such multilateral meetings. In Laos, Taiwan was only briefly mentioned when Obama used it, alongside Japan and South Korea, as an example of how democracy can develop in Asia.
Nevertheless, Taiwan should strive to make its voice heard and improve its diplomatic relations at upcoming events, including the UN General Assembly and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) annual meeting, as well as the APEC summit in November.
There is no reason Taiwan should not be able to attend the annual ICAO meeting. Many civic organizations are working hard to promote Taiwan’s re-entry into the UN. Tsai’s envoy to the APEC leaders’ summit should clearly express the Taiwanese stance on issues and help promote the nation’s interests.
There are many economic and social organizations and events, including APEC, that provide Taiwan with opportunities to communicate with other countries. Government agencies and civic groups should avail themselves of such opportunities.
Taiwan cannot afford inaction or pessimism. At the moment, Tsai’s administration is working on promoting her “new southbound policy,” which is expected to help Taiwanese companies find success in ASEAN nations and India with a pragmatic and outward-looking approach.
The influence of civil society should not be underestimated. Former deputy minister of foreign affairs Michael Kau (高英茂), a knowledgeable and experienced diplomat, has advocated public diplomacy and the redistribution of diplomatic resources.
Last month, Japanese and Taiwanese Internet users launched an online petition to allow Taiwan use its own name at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
The government should not deny or ignore their efforts, but rather collaborate with them to help Taiwan’s voice reach the international community so as to earn the rights it deserves.
Translated by Tu Yu-an
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