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June 25, 2017

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Taiwan can do little in the Vatican-Beijing game

Taipei wouldn't admit it, but any friendly interaction between its only diplomatic ally in Europe — namely the Vatican — and Beijing would raise an alarm. The latest act of politeness shown by Pope Francis to China has again sparked speculation over possible changes in the relationships between the three sides — Taipei, Beijing and the Vatican.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has maintained that mutual ties with the Holy See remain strong despite Pope Francis sending a greeting to Beijing while flying over Chinese airspace en route to South Korea this week in his first-ever visit to Asia as pontiff.

While the message conformed to diplomatic protocol, its significance lies in the fact that the last time a pope asked to fly over Chinese airspace — in 1989 — Beijing refused. That means it is not the message that is significant, but the fact that China agreed to the pope flying over its territory, which signifies a level of improvement in their relationship.

It is no secret that the Vatican has been eager to spread Catholicism in the most-populated country in the world. But the Vatican and Beijing cannot agree with each other on who should oversee Catholics in China.

The dispute has less to do with the fact that communists are atheists than the fact the Beijing has a strong desire to impose absolute control on everything.

One can imagine the Chinese communists' apprehension in the face of a cult or religious leader who has a big enough following to threaten its authority and control of the country. Any form of challenge, such as the 1989 pro-democracy student movement in Beijing's Tiananmen Square or the Falung Gong, therefore, must be cracked down upon.

The communists' desire clashes with the Vatican, which naturally wants to maintain its authority over Catholics in China. They are seeking different kinds of authority, though: Beijing wants political authority, and the Holy See, religious.

For the Vatican, it is unthinkable that it would forfeit its authority over Catholics to a lay institution that does not believe in God and yet tries to subsume Christianity into its political ideology.

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