Great Maneuvers in the China Sea

February 16, 2022

While all eyes are on Ukraine, where a new phase of the confrontation between Russia and the United States is being played out, Vatican diplomacy is still deploying intense activity further to the East, where the lines are constantly being moved between the Holy See and the Middle Kingdom.

The least we can say is that, in Rome, they know how to cultivate the art of discretion. On January 31, 2022, the Bulletin of the Press Office of the Holy See soberly announced the promotion of Msgr. Arnaldo Catalan, who is becoming nuncio to Rwanda with the dignity of titular archbishop.

Innocuous news in itself, unless you know that the Filipino prelate was previously a diplomatic representative in Taiwan. Two things should be noted: the post that Msgr. Catalan is leaving is listed on the Vatican website with the laconic mention “China (Taipei),” and this post now remains vacant.

Indeed, although the Holy See has officially maintained bilateral relations with Taiwan, despite pressure from Beijing, there has been no titular nuncio in Taipei since the 1970s, but only a “chargé d'affaires,” who exercises in concrete terms the same role as a nuncio: a pirouette to spare the susceptibilities of the continental red dragon.

It should also be noted that from now on, the diplomatic profiles of the Holy See in Taiwan and Hong Kong – two territories over which Beijing claims undivided sovereignty – no longer have a head. The diplomatic mission in the former British colony has only existed on paper since 2020.

Something to worry about, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world: thus, on February 6, Benedict Rogers, founder of the NGO Hong Kong Watch, warned the Vatican against a possible establishment of diplomatic relations with mainland China.

“It would be totally unacceptable and scandalous if that were the case,” raised Benedict Rogers in the columns of the American media Catholic News Agency, urging the sovereign pontiff “to ensure that the Vatican will maintain its diplomatic relations with Taiwan.”

At the same time, new worrying signals arrived from Hong Kong: in the last week of January 2022, four incriminating articles against Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun – Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, the Pearl of the Orient – ​​were published in Ta Kung Pao, an organ of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The prelate is notably accused of “inciting the sedition of youth”:  serious accusations which, in China, often prepare the ground for police and judicial action, but which could also be a warning to the new bishop of Hong Kong, Bishop Stephen Chow, who has just denounced the “attacks on human dignity” and the fact that “culture can be subversive.”

The criticisms remained very general and vague, but were not really to the taste of the red mandarins.

The situation of Catholics in mainland China continues to deteriorate at the same time as the provisional agreement signed with the Holy See in 2018. From now on, consultation during the selection and consecration of bishops is no longer really on the agenda, and Rome is often faced with a fait accompli, according to the analysis of Edward Condon, columnist at The Pillar.

All this being taken into consideration, one can also hypothesize that Vatican diplomacy seeks to keep, with the vacancy of the Taiwan mission, a kind of ace up its sleeve in order to influence its negotiations with Beijing.