Relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, and the Vatican have begun to shift and bear significant implications for the region as well as for the role of the United States in the Indo-Pacific. Since the Republic of China (ROC) government relocated to Taiwan in 1949, national reunification has remained a priority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has long determined its training and acquisition requirements based on potential reunification scenarios, and recent strides in military reform and technological development coupled with rising assertiveness have raised concerns about the potential for action across the Taiwan Strait.
While the challenge presented by an increasingly capable and confident PLA has drawn attention, the PRC has also advanced an opportunistic approach to steadily eat away at the list of countries that formally recognize Taiwan. Of the fifteen countries that remain on this list, the Vatican is perhaps the most significant. Because of this, it presents a valuable target for PRC efforts to isolate Taiwan. Speculation about a change in the Vatican position has come at different points before, such as with the death of Pope John Paul II (China Brief, April 12, 2005). Recent new ties between the Vatican and Beijing suggest that a more substantial shift may soon come. Reports of Vatican interest in establishing a permanent office in Beijing suggest a renewed sense of urgency (Taiwan News, September 16, 2020). A review of recent developments in the relationships between these three countries can help to establish a greater understanding of a complex situation, as well as what the potential changes could mean for U.S. policy.
The complex relations between the Vatican, Taiwan, and the PRC began with a shared history that diverged on competing paths. Although first contact took place as early as the 13th century, the start of modern relations began during World War II when the Nationalist government sent its first ambassador to the Vatican City in 1942. Four years later, the Vatican dispatched to Nanjing its first Papal Internuncio, who served both as a religious representative within the church and also as a diplomatic ambassador. Completing the exchange of ambassadors in 1946 established formal relations between the Vatican and the Nationalist government. But in 1949 Communist forces expelled the Nationalist government from the Chinese mainland to Taiwan and founded the People’s Republic of China. The Communist government then expelled the papal representative, cutting off diplomatic relations with the Vatican (China Brief, May 15, 2015).
Chinese relations with the Vatican subsequently divided along two paths. On the mainland, the CCP has advanced its own Catholic community led by state-sanctioned bishops and struggled to contain underground churches, which for many years were tacitly supported by the international Catholic church through the Vatican’s appointment of bishops (BBC, January 22, 2007). The Vatican maintains formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, where between 0.5 to 2 percent of the population identifies as Catholic (Union of Catholic Asian News, accessed Feb 23).
The Attrition of Diplomatic Recognition
The PRC has made no secret about its intention to unite Taiwan with the mainland, and while concerns are typically focused on the prospect of military coercion, its efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically also demand attention. Following Taiwan’s expulsion from the UN in 1971 (and China’s concurrent recognition), the list of countries that formally recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country has dwindled rapidly—from 32 in 2000 to 15 at the end of 2020 (Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade). A strong mainland campaign of diplomatic and economic outreach has often heralded each shift in recognition. For example, when the Solomon Islands shifted diplomatic recognition to the PRC in 2019, its prime minister stated that, “the Solomon Islands is better served making a decision that reflects our long term development interests rather than being uncertain over what might happen should one day Taiwan democratically decide to reunite with Mainland China” (Solomon Times, September 20, 2019). The country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and External Trade Jeremiah Manele also expressed interest in the Belt and Road Initiative and the potential for Chinese investment (Xinhua, September 21, 2019). With a growing array of carrots and sticks available in its statecraft arsenal, the PRC builds leverage in a variety of ways to erode Taiwan’s diplomatic alliances.
A significant shift in the mainland’s relations with the Vatican also bodes poorly for Taiwan. In 2018, China and the Vatican signed a historic agreement on the joint appointment of Chinese bishops (Radio Free Asia, September 24, 2018). Although Pope Francis described the deal at the time as “not political but pastoral,” and highlighted the Vatican’s new veto power over the appointment of bishops inside the PRC, critics warned that the deal betrayed the underground Catholic church community in China (China Brief, October 10, 2018). The state-directed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association reportedly chooses nominees for episcopal ordination (Catholic News Agency, October 22, 2020). Details of the secretive agreement have not been released, but nevertheless both parties agreed to renew it in October 2020, continuing the terms “ad experimentum” for another two years (La Stampa, October 22, 2020; PRC Embassy in Liberia, October 22, 2020). Although the Vatican has reiterated that the current deal does not resolve all of the issues between Beijing and the Vatican (Vatican News, October 22, 2020), the 2018 deal and its subsequent renewal have set a precedent giving long-lacking momentum to the normalization of relations.
Any further development in relations between the PRC and the Vatican would have significant implications for the PRC, Taiwan, and the Vatican, as well as the United States. A shift in Vatican diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC would represent a further solidification of the international consensus around Beijing’s position towards Taiwan. Of the remaining countries that recognize Taiwan, the Vatican holds a position of particular significance. Crucially, the Vatican is Taiwan’s only remaining diplomatic partner in Europe. Although the Vatican is not a member of the European Union, it participates in the Eurozone and enjoys open borders with Schengen Area countries. Italy maintains its defense. Politically and culturally, the Vatican is integrated within the European community of nations. In this way, as Taiwan’s sole European partner, it enables important access and influence.
Beyond Europe, the Vatican holds disproportionate influence around the world as the head of the Catholic Church. It is worth mentioning that 9 of the 15 countries that still recognize Taiwan (including the Vatican) feature significant Catholic populations. The combined populations of those 14 countries totals about 77 million people, and the Catholic Church reports 1.2 billion followers globally (Pew Research, February 13, 2013). The Chinese mainland has an estimated 9 million Catholics, which both offers a substantial community for the Vatican to support (Pew Research, 2011; Pew Research, October 11, 2018; Pew Research, July 29, 2008). Researchers have also observed that Christianity (particularly Protestantism) has seen explosive growth in China since the 1980s. Even as the global Catholic population is expected to continue a net decline in the coming years, current projections anticipate that the growth of Christianity in China will continue (Inkstone News, March 30, 2018; Christianity Daily, September 24, 2020). Demographic changes thus pressure the Vatican to tilt towards the PRC. But should the Vatican shift diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC, it could easily spark a cascade, influencing Catholic countries to change their positions as well.
Absent formal recognition from foreign partners, Taiwan would have little diplomatic ammunition with which to resist the PRC narrative that reunification is a matter of “internal affairs.” Such a characterization might allow for the employment of the People’s Armed Police (PAP), the principle internal security force on the mainland, in concert with the PLA. The latter has trained, equipped, and organized to isolate the island and support operations to seize territory, while the former is likely better suited for the occupation-like tasks that would follow. Given the lack of diplomatic recognition in the international community, swift action coupled with information misdirection could limit the options available to Taiwan’s friends to generate external resistance.
Among the most significant of those friends, the United States faces the horns of a dilemma. Although economic and military support for Taiwan remains a bipartisan priority for the U.S. leadership, recent public opinion polling has shown that the U.S. public opposes an American defense of Taiwan (Chicago Council on Global Affairs, February 1). The ambiguity of the U.S.’ One China policy has come under increasing strain, as a more capable and assertive China presses its reunification agenda. Beijing noticeably stepped up military pressure and disinformation campaigns against Taiwan last year, with some analysts describing the combination of tactics as tantamount to gray-zone warfare (Taiwan News, December 26, 2020). Particularly in light of Beijing’s recent crackdowns in Hong Kong and the apparent end of the “One Country, Two Systems” framework, the possibility of a peaceful and democratic reunification seems increasingly farfetched. The U.S. continues to support Taiwan through political gestures, such as a series of high-profile diplomatic visits in 2020, and through arms sales, most recently the $1.8 billion sale approach by the Pentagon in October 2020 (Taipei Times, November 21, 2020; Reuters, October 21, 2020).
The path forward between the PRC, Taiwan, and the Vatican is potentially perilous but not by any means predetermined. Obstacles to further cooperation between the PRC and the Vatican remain: just at the end of last year, a report surfaced that Chinese officials had detained two Hong Kong-based nuns visiting the mainland, demonstrating a fundamental disagreement over whether the two-year deal between the Vatican and Beijing applies to Hong Kong as well (Reuters, December 30, 2020). Following the leadership transition earlier this year, U.S. policy has remained consistent in its growing support for Taiwan—much to the consternation of Chinese officials and state media (U.S. State Department, January 23; Xinhua, January 28) Untethered from a broader strategy of support, such piecemeal support may instead serve to accelerate dangerous trends or provoke aggression from Beijing. U.S. leaders need to consider a revitalized approach to Taiwan that both assesses American interests in the Indo-Pacific in a shifting strategic environment and soberly accounts for the political will required to support contingency operations in the event of crisis. Under this volatile context, the PRC, Taiwan, the Vatican, and the United States all navigate dangerous waters moving into the future, stirring ripples with significant implications for international security.
Ryan Oliver is the Manager of Innovation, Strategy and Planning at Madison Springfield. His previous positions include working as a China specialist at U.S. Special Operations Command (J5 Strategy, Policy, and Plans) and at The Asia Group, a boutique consultancy in Washington, DC. He also serves as an officer in the U.S. Army National Guard. He is a graduate of Georgetown University, the George Washington University, and the Defense Language Institute.
 Not to be confused with the PRC’s “One China principle,” which pushes a narrative that there is only one China, and Taiwan is a part of China. In contrast, the “One China policy” typically refers to the formulation of solutions (including the Three Communiqués, Six Assurances, and the Taiwan Relations Act) framed by the U.S. and to maintain economic and military support for Taiwan while acknowledging China’s diplomatic position on China. See: (New Bloom, April 21, 2019; U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, January 7, 2020).