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If China moves on Taiwan, what’s the Vatican’s plan?

After a series of military exercises, weapons tests, and political saber rattling, the international community is braced for the possibility of a military conflict between China and Taiwan.

But, as the last senior diplomatic power with full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, what would a Chinese annexation mean for the Vatican?

Embassy of the Republic of China to the Holy See. Credit: Michael Cahill (CC BY 2.0)

For the last several months, the People’s Republic of China has been ratcheting up military pressure on the Republic of China, as Taiwan is officially known, staging mock invasion exercises; flying military sorties around Taiwanese airspace, and dialing up domestic rhetoric around the idea of a forced reunification.

The Financial Times reported Saturday that China had tested a hypersonic missile system which could prove an ultimate deterrent against U.S. military intervention in the event of an invasion.

The Holy See, obviously, has no stake in the military calculus around the possibility of Taiwanese annexation. But as the only major international player with formal relations with Taiwan, as well as an important agreement with the mainland, the Vatican would have to decide how to react — and in doing so could face a complicated diplomatic calculation.

The Holy See has recognized the government of Taiwan since 1942, and maintained an embassy in Taipei since then. On the other hand, the Vatican has had no official diplomatic presence with Beijing since 1951, when the Church was officially expelled from the mainland by the Communist government.

Since then, reopening China has been an aim of the Vatican’s diplomatic service, probably on a par with Beijing’s desire for a reunified “one China” with Taiwan. The Holy See’s desire to normalize Catholic life in China led to the controversial 2018 Vatican-China deal on the appointment of bishops and state registration of clergy, meant to bring stability to the underground Catholic Church and communion with the schismatic state controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

While even Pope Francis has now conceded that the benefits of his deal with the mainland government are tenuous, the Vatican has remained committed to strengthening relations with Beijing, even to the point of remaining silent on the genocidal campaign against the Uihgur people of Xinxiang.

Even where the Beijing government’s actions touch the interests of the Church or the welfare of Catholics directly, like the disappearance and harassment of mainland clergy or the crackdown on civil rights in Hong Kong, the Holy See has maintained silence on China’s actions. Critics have warned that silence is sapping its moral credibility on the world stage, while supporters of the China deal say that stabilizing Catholic life in China is a goal worth the trade offs.

The Vatican’s chief diplomat, Archbishop Paul Gallagher said in June that while human rights concerns Hong Kong are “obviously the object of concern” for the Church, Vatican diplomats ​​”have yet to be convinced that it would make any difference whatever” to speak out against Beijing’s action in the region.

Set in this context, the chances of any Vatican diplomatic protest of a possible Chinese effort to annex Taiwan appear remote.

But it is worth asking if the Church’s current strategy in the region is actually contributing to Beijing’s confidence: The extent to which China has been able to steadily crackdown on civil and democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, free from international repercussions, has been credited by many as emboldening its approach to Taiwan.

It is also worth considering if a Chinese takeover of Taiwan might be quietly, perhaps silently, considered a useful development within the Vatican Secretariat of State.

In the run-up to the renewal of the Vatican-China agreement last year, government figures and Church leaders in Taiwan both acknowledged speculation that ending formal relations with Taiwan would be a necessary condition for the Vatican to re-establish a formal diplomatic presence in Beijing.

Last July, the South China Morning Post quoted an unnamed Vatican official saying “Taiwan should not be offended if the embassy in Taipei is moved back to its original address in Beijing.” And the Vatican was Taiwan’s only diplomatic partner not to appeal for it to be allowed to participate in the World Health Organization’s assembly meetings on the coronavirus pandemic.

While Rome made some efforts to offset its public coolness to Taipei - appointing a former Taiwanese vice president to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences earlier this summer - it has become increasingly clear which way the Vatican’s wind is blowing across the Taiwan Strait.

In the event that China made a real effort to force reunification, any public condemnation of the move from Rome would likely be treated by Beijing as a challenge to China’s internal sovereignty, with potentially serious consequences for both the Vatican-China deal and for Chinese Catholics.

Vatican diplomats would likely again deploy Gallagher’s calculus and conclude that no protest they made “would make any difference whatever,” at least for the good. They might even view it as an inelegant but realpolitik rationale for shifting its Taipei embassy, and formal diplomatic relations, to Beijing.

But, while quietly accepting the benefits of events they cannot change might appear the hard-headed realist’s approach, it would not be without costs.

Some supporters of the Vatican’s “China first” diplomatic priorities have defended the Holy See’s silence on the human rights crisis in Xinxiang and Hong Kong as the price of serious diplomatic engagement and of offsetting short term versus long term goals. There may be some truth to that.

But accepting without protest the effective annexation of a formal ally, one with which the Holy See had a unique relationship on the international stage, would come with a real price tag.

While the Secretariat of State has appeared willing in the past to sublimate what are effectively pastoral concerns with China into its diplomatic negotiations, public silence over the fate of a diplomatic partner would not go unnoticed when the Holy See campaigned in international bodies for other goals, like pro-life and pro-family policies in South America and Europe, for example.

If silence on Taiwan led to a more solid diplomatic relationship with Beijing, it could also give the impression that the Holy See’s entire diplomatic work was, in the end, unconnected to its humanitarian principles.

It is one thing for the Secretariat of State to be accused of acting like a pragmatic diplomatic player instead of a Church, but it would be quite another to be seen to have sloughed off both pastoral and diplomatic ties to pursue one overriding political relationship.

In short, as the Vatican continues to engage with Beijing, it may find its other priorities and principles in international diplomacy tied up on a string of pearls.