For Taiwan, it was a rare and cherished moment of diplomacy: on Tuesday, President Ma Ying-jeou sat with his wife among political leaders as newly installed Pope Francis celebrated his inaugural Mass at the Vatican. Owing to alphabetic order, the leader of the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name, was seated next to Chilean President Sebastián Piñera and Laura Chinchilla, President of Costa Rica, a country with which Taiwan had diplomatic relations until 2007, when it switched from Taipei to Beijing.
Taiwan’s room for international recognition is small and shrinking, strangled by the growing economic and diplomatic importance of China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province that must be eventually reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary. China’s central government has sought to isolate Taiwan, blocking it from representation in many international bodies and protesting when its officials are given any sort of recognition overseas. The Holy See is one of just 23 states with which Taiwan has diplomatic relations and is its only formal tie in Europe.
With stagnant economic growth at home, Ma’s approval rating has been in the teens since last summer. So, a rare official trip to Europe, and the chance to speak however briefly with world leaders, was a welcome diversion. Ma chatted with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. He smiled broadly as he and Taiwan’s First Lady Chow Mei-ching met Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica after the service. Ma spoke, first in Spanish then in English, and told Pope Francis about Argentine priest Ricardo Ferreira, who spent 50 years in Taiwan, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported. The meeting, the first between a Pope and a Taiwan President, lasted just 45 seconds, a Taiwan broadcaster noted.
Despite the brevity of Ma’s big diplomatic moment, China was not amused. Last week after Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected Pontiff by the gathering of Cardinals, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying referred obliquely to the history of fraught relations between Beijing and the Vatican. “We hope that under the leadership of the new Pope, the Vatican could work with China to create favorable conditions for the improvement of relations,” she said. On Sunday, Hua called on the Vatican to “recognize the Chinese government as the sole legal representative of all China,” AFP reported.
The Vatican’s relations with Taiwan are just one of the Chinese government’s key objections. The other is its relationship with China’s 6 million to 12 million Catholics. Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Communist Party sought to curb both religion and foreign influence, making Roman Catholics, with their allegiance to the Pope, a chief target. The authorities kicked out foreign priests and nuns, persecuted Chinese Catholic clergy and set up a rival church, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which doesn’t recognize the authority of the Pope. That fundamental disagreement has hampered any significant improvements in ties with the Vatican over the past 60 years. Over the past two years the Vatican has excommunicated three Chinese bishops who were elevated without approval of the Pope.
Pope Francis’ choice of name raised some hopes that the church’s first Pope from the New World will boost ties with Asia in the tradition of Francis Xavier, a fellow Jesuit who traveled to India, Japan and China in the 16th century. The Pontiff later said he took his name from St. Francis of Assisi, out of respect for his ministry to the poor. In Ma’s choice of gift to the new Pope though there was a faint echo, perhaps unintentional, of an era when the Catholic Church had a far better relationship with China’s leadership. Ma picked a porcelain vase adorned with a pair of magpies. The same birds are featured in a fantastic 18th century trompe l’oeil mural in the Forbidden City that was likely painted by apprentices of Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit who had served as the Qianlong Emperor’s court painter.