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Taiwan fears Vatican will cut diplomatic ties if China deal goes through

Tsai Ing-wen, President of Taiwan, has downplayed fears that the Vatican will cut its diplomatic ties (Getty)

Taiwanese politicians are increasingly concerned that the Holy See could cut its diplomatic ties with the small state if a China-Vatican diplomatic deal goes ahead.

China views Taiwan as a rebel province rather than an independent state: if a country opens diplomatic relations with China, it normally has to break them off with Taiwan.

Debate around the Rome-Beijing talks has focused on a potential deal whereby the Chinese government would have a key role in selecting bishops. But the move would also have broader diplomatic implications.

The Vatican has recognised Taiwan since 1942; it is currently the only European state to have full diplomatic relations, and probably the most high-profile of only 20 worldwide. China puts pressure on states to drop relations with Taiwan: Panama, for instance, did so last year. The Catholic Herald understands that Chinese officials are lobbying for the Vatican to do the same.

One source quoted a senior member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference as saying: “Once this bishops compromise is out the way, probably after Easter, the recognition won’t be far behind… Once Taiwan lose the Holy See then the only people left recognising them will be pointless islands no one has ever heard of.”

Two weeks ago Liao Wu-jyh, one of Taiwan’s most prominent Daoist leaders, delivered a letter to Pope Francis pleading with him not to break off relations.

In public, Taiwan’s leaders are downplaying the risk. Earlier this month Taiwan’s Premier, Lai Ching-te, said that a Vatican-China agreement on bishops need not affect diplomatic relations. Last week Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, congratulated the Pope on his fifth anniversary and expressed the hope that he would one day visit Taiwan.

In October the Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, said that the Holy See would remain a “committed partner” of Taiwan. This week a “senior Vatican official” was quoted by Reuters as saying that the deal on bishops “is not a political one” and need not confront the Taiwan question.

But China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, without explicitly referring to the Vatican, has recently urged Taiwan’s allies to establish “diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, the only legal representative of the entire Chinese people”. Reuters quote him as saying that this is “obviously the correct choice that conforms to the times”.