Taiwan Vice President Travels to Vatican to Shore up Diplomatic Ties

Taiwan's Vice President, Chen Chien-jen (R) reacts as he speaks at a press conference for the newly passed pension reform bill at the presidential office in Taipei on June 21, 2018. - Taiwan's military veterans will see their pensions cut as soon as next month after parliament passed a controversial …
DANIEL SHIH/AFP/Getty

Taiwan’s Vice President Chen Chien-jen departed for Rome late Thursday in a bid to cement diplomatic ties with the Vatican, perceived as threatened by a recent rapprochement between China and the Holy See.

Last month the Vatican and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) signed a historic agreement regarding the appointment of bishops without disclosing the exact stipulations of the accord. The move was lauded by some but provoked consternation among members of China’s unofficial “underground” Catholic Church, which has been loyal to Rome.

The agreement has been described as an important first step toward establishing formal diplomatic relations between the two governments, which may threaten Taiwan’s diplomatic status with the Holy See.

The Vatican is currently the only government in Europe recognizing Taiwan instead of China, and one of only 20 states in the world that do so. Beijing has insisted that countries who want relations with the PRC must break ties with Taiwan.

Speaking at the Taoyuan International Airport shortly before boarding his flight, the vice president underscored the close ties uniting Taiwan and the Vatican and asserted that the Taiwanese government will continue to work with the Holy See for religious freedom, democracy, human rights, and world peace.

Officially, Vice President Chen — who is himself a Catholic — is traveling to Rome to attend this Sunday’s canonization of Pope Paul VI, but reports suggest that Chen also intends to solidify diplomatic ties with the Vatican.

The Holy See established diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan) in 1942, but after the United Nations recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1971 as “the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations,” the Vatican appointed no new nuncio, reducing its mission at Taipei to a “chargé d’affaires ad interim.”

For its part, Taipei maintains an ambassador to the Vatican, listed in Vatican directories under “China.”

Last fall, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, said that the Vatican would continue to honor its relations with Taiwan even as it draws closer to the PRC.

Taiwan’s semi-official Central News Agency quoted Gallagher as telling Taiwan’s ambassador to the Holy See, Matthew Lee Shih-ming, that he could “guarantee that the Vatican would continue as a committed partner” of Taipei.

During his four-day visit to the Vatican, Chen is expected to meet with Pope Francis, and will also speak with overseas Taiwanese nationals in an event held at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Taiwan is home to some 300,000 Catholics, who make up about 2 percent of the island’s population.

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