Improved ties between Beijing and the Vatican, following a historic deal allowing joint appointment of Catholic bishops in China, have raised concerns in Taiwan that it will lose its most important diplomatic partner.
After China and the Vatican signed a provisional agreement on Saturday, which marks a major rapprochement after 67 years of estrangement, Taiwan is concerned that its diplomatic relationship with the Vatican could be in jeopardy.
The Vatican is one of only 17 countries that have diplomatic relations with Taipei instead of Beijing, and the Holy See's global influence makes it Taiwan's most important diplomatic partner.
Under the historic deal, the Catholic Church and the Chinese government agreed to jointly approve the appointment of Catholic bishops in China. The Catholic Church has always insisted on autonomy in the appointment of bishops, but China has always contended that Catholic bishops must be approved by the state.
Church and state become one
In China, only state-sanctioned churches are legally permitted to operate under the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. However, half of China's estimated 12 million Catholics worship in so-called "underground" churches, which are subjected to widespread suppression.
Under the agreement, the Vatican will recognize seven Chinese state-appointed Catholic bishops. In turn, Beijing reportedly will recognize an unspecified number of the 36 bishops that have been appointed by the Vatican and work with congregations in underground churches.
Most important, however, is the stipulation that bishop candidates in China may only be proposed by the Chinese religious authorities. For what its worth, the Pope will maintain veto rights.
After the agreement was announced, a Vatican spokesman said the move was "not political but pastoral" and it allowed faithful "to have bishops who are in communion with Rome, but at the same time recognized by Chinese authorities."
Trouble for Taiwan?
The People's Republic of China considers Taiwan to be part of its territory. When Pope Francis brought up the possibility of an agreement with China several years ago, speculation arose that Beijing would insist on the Vatican breaking off diplomatic relations with Taipei.
Now, Taiwan wants to demonstrate that relations are sound. According to local media, Taiwanese Vice President Chen Jien-jen is planning to lead a delegation to the Vatican in October for the canonization of Pope Paul VI and the murdered Salvadorian archbishop Oscar Romero.
While Chen is a state guest of the Vatican, he is not allowed to visit other parts of Europe due to political pressure from China that serves to isolate Taiwan internationally.
However, the Vatican has previously offered Taiwan opportunities to present itself as an equal partner in the political arena. In 2013, then president Ma Ying-jeou was invited to Rome to attend the inauguration ceremony of Pope Francis. Pictures in the media also showed him in conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The Taiwanese government responded to he new agreements by saying they are neither diplomatic nor political in nature; they only concern religion.
There are also encouraging reports that the Vatican ambassador can return to the embassy after several years of renovation on the building in Taipei.
Loss of allies not new for Taipei
On the other hand, it is not a new experience for Taiwan that stable diplomatic relations have faltered. Since President Tsai Ing-wen's inauguration in 2016, China has successfully persuaded five countries to change sides – most recently El Salvador, in August.
Beijing's strategy has been to limit political space for Taiwan. The major bone of contention between Tsai and the Chinese government is, although she does not seek an official declaration of independence, she has refused to define Taiwan as part of "one China" unlike his predecessors.
While China generally uses its economic power to tilt diplomatic ties in its favor, the same tactics can't tempt the Vatican. Around than 12 million Catholics live in China and many of them face harassment from the Communist Party of China.
In comparison, some 300,000 Catholics live in Taiwan and can practice their faith freely. This aspect is more important for the Vatican than financial issues.
Politics, religion and diplomacy
In May, as talks between China and the Vatican were ongoing, seven Taiwanese bishops visited Rome for the first time in 10 years to meet with the Pope. John Hung, the archbishop of Taiwan, told the US broadcaster Radio Free Asia that they urged Pope Francis to protect Taiwan and that Taiwan's Catholic community would be very disappointed by the breaking of diplomatic relations.
Hung said in the interview he spoke with the Pope and was assured Taiwan would not be left out in the cold by the Vatican. He also invited Francis to Taiwan in 2019. It would be the first visit by a Pope to the island. However, the new agreement with China makes a visit unlikely.
"If the Vatican does intend to drop Taiwan, it will indeed take a long while," John Sullivan, a China-Taiwan expert at the University of Nottingham, told DW. "However, this has been made slightly more possible after the agreement with China," he added.
If China continues at this pace, in a few years, Taiwan will be without diplomatic partners. And the relationship with the Vatican has a particular meaning.
"It would signal to catholic countries in Central America, that it is okay to switch sides," said Sullivan. Out of the 17 countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan under its official name, "The Republic of China," four of them are in Central America.
To exercise influence internationally, Taiwan doesn't depend on official contacts, but rather on common democratic values. It maintains unofficial embassies in more than 50 countries and has good relations with the US Congress and the European Parliament. Recently in Brussels, the European Parliament passed a resolution that condemned China's aggressive tactics with Taiwan and called for Taipei to have more participation in international organizations.