Vol. 1 Issue 1
Global Taiwan Brief – Vol. 1, Issue 1
A Key Communications Node in the Asia-Pacific: Taiwan
By: Russell Hsiao
Enhancing Taiwan’s International Space Through Functional Cooperation and Public Service
By: David An
Reforming the Kuomintang: Adapting to Taiwan’s Dynamic Democracy (Part I)
By: Lauren Dickey
Is 2049 Beijing’s “deadline” for Taking Over Taiwan?
By: Willy Lam
Breaking with Taiwan is Chinese Precondition for Vatican Thaw
By: John J. Tkacik
A Key Communications Node in the Asia-Pacific: Taiwan
Russell Hsiao is the Executive Director of the Global Taiwan Institute and Chief Editor of the Global Taiwan Brief.
Submarine communication cables serve as the primary conduit for global communication—phone calls, e-mails, web pages—and commerce. Despite the common misperception that satellites carry the main haul of global communications, the volume and nature of the traffic carried over submarine cables make its operational status critically important for a nation’s economic and national security. The Internet, over which the bulk of modern personal, commercial, and often sensitive transactions are transmitted, depends on this subterranean infrastructure. Taiwan’s geography and its location within the Asia-Pacific region make it the ideal regional conduit for the global Internet.
The Federal Communication Commission (FCC)—the independent agency in the United States responsible for regulating the communications sector—in its Submarine Cable Outage Notice referred to one estimate which states that undersea cables support nearly $10 trillion U.S. dollars in transactions each day. Moreover, submarine cables “carry over 95 percent of all U.S.-international voice and data traffic.” Other sources estimate that submarine cables carry 99 percent of such traffic. The FCC’s efforts to regulate network outage reporting by submarine cable operators reflect the importance of monitoring these vital arteries for global commerce and communication.
According to Nicole Starosielski, an undersea cable expert writing in the innovation and technology outlet Wired, “there are a little over 200 [submarine cable] systems that carry all of the internet traffic across the ocean, and these are by and large concentrated in very few areas. The cables end up getting funneled through these narrow pressure points all around the globe.” These bottlenecks, coupled with an aging infrastructure (the average commercial lifespan of subsea cables is reportedly 25 years) logically make countries that border the cables important for their maintenance and upkeep. Severed submarine cables could cause disruptions in voice and data services for residents and businesses—for weeks if not months—not only in one but multiple countries. One such “pressure point” is located around Taiwan.
For instance, a 2006 earthquake severed two undersea cables off the Taiwan coast and severely disrupted Internet access in Taiwan and throughout Asia. Services in Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and even Europe were reportedly stalled by the outage. Financial transactions, particularly in the foreign exchange market were also affected. The transnational effects of severed or submarine cables highlight the importance of their upkeep and the role of littoral countries in ensuring that this infrastructure is properly protected and maintained.
There are now 9 submarine cables (APCN, APCN-2, C2C, China-US CN, EAC, FLAG FEA, FNAL/FNAL, SMW3 and TPE) and four cable landing points on Taiwan (Tamsui, Pali, Toucheng and Fangshan). These submarine cables and the landing stations are integral components of the regional communications infrastructure. Taiwan’s location along the midpoint of the Asia-Pacific region can help to reduce latency between East and Southeast Asia. Furthermore, the island’s close proximity to the bottlenecks makes it the ideal caretaker for the cables. The importance of Taiwan as a regional hub was apparently not lost on one of the world’s leading technology companies, Google, which built its largest data center in Taiwan and recently upgraded it to further increase its capacity.
While submarine cables may seem an obscure subject matter, policymakers and business decision makers should not turn a blind eye to their growing importance for the 21st century economy. Although private companies appear to be taking note of Taiwan’s role as a regional communications hub, policymakers should also pay closer attention to the island’s unleveraged role as a hub for the regional communications architecture.
The main point: Taiwan is an unleveraged node in the Asia-Pacific region’s communications infrastructure, which is integral to the area’s economic and national security.
Enhancing Taiwan’s International Space Through Functional Cooperation and Public Service
David An is a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute. David formerly served as a political-military affairs officer at the U.S. State Department.
The annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is currently underway in New York City. This year marks the 45th year anniversary of Republic of China’s (ROC) last year as a member. When the ROC held a seat in the UN as an internationally recognized sovereign state, it was counted as one of the prestigious five members of the UN Security Council, and prided itself in being a founding member of the global organization. Even today, the people of Taiwan (ROC) are still actively pursuing a path into the United Nations and other more prominent high-politics organizations, such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC). While worthy of praise, a bottom-up approach that extends Taiwan’s international space and presence through mid-level functional organizations and international grassroots public service organizations could be more effective.
Every year around September hundreds of Taiwanese-Americans hold a “U.N. for Taiwan” protest in Times Square. This year was no different, and the event was held on September 14, 2016. A cofounder of the movement remarked: “Every year, we’re going to shout, we’re going to fight, and we’re gonna be heard.” Relatedly, when Taiwan weightlifter Hsu-Ching Hsu won the island’s first Olympic gold, she saluted a flag that was barely recognizable to her or her compatriots during the medal ceremony. Taiwan’s Olympic flag is a compromise solution acceptable to Beijing that allows Taiwan to participate under the moniker “Chinese Taipei” and hence not the official flag of Taiwan. It is one of many conspicuous symbols which demonstrate Taiwan’s constrained international space.
Taiwan struggles to participate in international organizations that operate in the realm of high-politics due to geopolitics. This is because the People’s Republic of China (PRC) does not want other countries to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country. In light of the current global political environment, Taiwan’s leaders should turn their focus toward mid-level functional organizations and grassroots organizations since there is a stronger case for the United States and other countries to support its participation in specific functional areas, and less reason for the PRC to exclude it.
Examples of mid-level organizations include the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), World Health Organization (WHO), ASEAN Investor Forum and others. They embody specific functions—law enforcement, public health, passenger airline flight safety, regional business, and others—where the world would benefit from Taiwan’s active participation in specific ways, and vice versa.
Taking Interpol as an example, Taiwan’s efforts in cracking down on international criminal networks would provide a public good that benefits all other countries. Recently on March 18, 2016, United States President Obama signed a bill for the United States government to help Taiwan gain observer status at Interpol, after Congress voted and approved it as Public Law 114-139. Membership would allow Taiwan to gain access to Interpol’s 24/7 global police communications system that provides real time information on criminals and global criminal activities.
In addition, Taiwan’s bid for observer status at Interpol also demonstrates that Taiwan’s pursuit of mid-level functional organizations is more likely to receive political support from the United States and the rest of the world, in contrast to participation in the U.N. or other high politics organizations. President Obama’s Interpol bill requires the United States Secretary of State to develop a strategy to obtain observer status for Taiwan, for the State Department to communicate with the Interpol office in Washington, DC, to request observer status for Taiwan, and to actively urge Interpol member states to support Taiwan’s participation. Similarly, Taiwan is already an observer in the WHO, and plays a part in the ASEAN Investor Forum and other organizations.
However, Taiwan should have more success actively engaging in less high-profile global organizations such as the Global Environment Facility, Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia, International Organization for Migration, Conference on Disarmament, International Energy Forum, International Customs Organization (Taiwan is involved as non-member), and hundreds of others relevant to Taiwan as listed in the latest 2015-2016 Yearbook of International Organizations.
At another level, through grassroots organizations, Taiwan has even more promise and even fewer political constraints when participating in epistemic communities—defined as transnational networks of knowledge based experts. These communities include professionals and professors in the sciences and other academic disciplines. In politics, the leading thinkers and professors, such as Stephen Walt (Harvard), John Meirsheimer (Chicago), and Bob Jervis (Columbia) all attend the annual American Political Science Association (APSA) academic conference. At APSA, a group of professors from National Taiwan University, National Chengchi University and other schools in Taiwan have formed the Taiwan Studies Group, which Stanford academic Dr. Kharis Templeman leads. Taiwan’s top political scientists mix with United States-based professors to discuss global issues, influence each other’s views and build deep professional relationships through this group at APSA. These professors teach the next generation of leaders, write policy articles for publication, and governments call on them for their analyses and advice.
In addition, global public service organizations are another form of grassroots organization that hold the most promise for Taiwan’s free participation. Taiwan shares international values and norms such as human rights and humanitarian work. Organizations such as Kiwanis, Amnesty, Rotary, and Lions are blossoming in Taiwan. They connect people in Taiwan to each other in performing public service, to work together for a good cause; in turn, they connect Taiwan to club members in other countries through international meetings and conferences.
Famous heavy-metal lead singer, now legislator, Freddy Lim was the director of Amnesty International in Taiwan. He recently traded his gothic stage makeup for a business suit after winning a seat in Taiwan’s legislature as a member of the New Power Party in early 2016. Lim is emblematic of a younger, more dynamic generation of political leaders in Taiwan.
Taiwan should redouble efforts to build from membership in grassroots organizations to those at the mid-level and upward. Compared to high politics like the UN and Olympic Committee, the PRC’s influence in excluding Taiwan diminishes with the mid-level and grassroots organizations. In addition, the U.S. government and other countries should be more supportive of Taiwan in these organizations.
Exactly 45 years ago on October 25, 1971, Taiwan lost its crucial vote in the UN and left the organization. That day was a tumultuous scene at the UN General Assembly when Taiwan Ambassador Liu Chieh walked out of the hall with his delegation for the last time, made even more dramatic with representatives of various countries friendly to the PRC cheering, singing, and shouting, and a Tanzanian delegate dancing in the aisles. The U.S. Ambassador to the UN at the time, George H. W. Bush—who would later become the 41st U.S. president—rushed over to Taiwan Ambassador Liu as he was walking out and put his arm around Ambassador Liu’s shoulder in solidarity as they walked together.
Taiwan benefits the most—and provides the most benefit to the rest of the world—through functional organizations, epistemic communities, and public service organizations. Taipei should receive the strongest U.S. and international support, and enjoy the most success at the mid and grassroots levels. Moreover, Taiwan should consider turning their focus and resources toward mid-level functional organizations and grassroots organizations since there is less reason for the United States and other countries to withhold support for its participation in specific functional and grassroots areas. It would be unimaginable if they did.
The main point: Taiwan’s leaders should turn their focus toward midlevel functional organizations and grassroots organizations since there is a stronger case for the United States and other countries to support its participation in specific functional areas, and less reason for the PRC to exclude it.
Reforming the Kuomintang: Adapting to Taiwan’s Dynamic Democracy (Part I)
Lauren Dickey is a PhD candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, where her research focuses on Chinese strategy and cross-Strait relations. She is also a member of the Pacific Forum Young Leaders program at CSIS.
In November 2014, the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist Party) sustained a landslide defeat in Taiwan’s nine-in-one local elections, an unprecedented electoral setback for the party that left it with control of only one of Taiwan’s six major municipalities. In January 2016, the KMT lost the presidential office to Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). With a minority of seats in the island’s Legislative Yuan and a DPP president in power, the KMT is left on the outside looking in. The question many are rightly asking is if and how the KMT can reform sufficiently to remain politically viable.
The task of teaching an old dog new tricks falls into the hands of KMT chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu, previously ousted from the presidential race but since restored to lead the party through July 2017. Hung faces a host of problems, all of which are more complex than simply recalculating the party’s electoral strategy to win the next set of local and presidential elections. The reforms needed to ensure the KMT’s viability as a political party are existential in nature. A failure to reform its personnel structure or domestic and cross-Strait policy platforms could lead to the party’s demise, relegating it to the history books. A successful reform effort, however, could rejuvenate the KMT and ensure its place in the island’s vibrant democracy.
The KMT’s problem set begins with a perceived irrelevance to the electorate–an electorate that was discontented by former president Ma Ying-jeou’s economic and cross-Strait policies, as demonstrated by the Sunflower Movement, the largest democratic protest in Taiwan’s history. Unlike the DPP’s active courting of the youth vote, the KMT is perceived as out of touch with Taiwanese millennials, a socially progressive constituency energized by protests of closer Beijing-Taipei ties and in search of something besides the status quo. The KMT’s reputation has been further tarnished by the DPP’s push to investigate the party’s ill-gotten assets. With the recent passing of legislation requiring the KMT to register all its target assets over the next year, some analysts have been so bold as to suggest that this debacle alone will lead to the KMT’s bankruptcy and demise, a possibility the KMT and Hung have vehemently rejected with the promise to use all legal tools at their disposal.
Amongst these difficulties the KMT has displayed a willingness to reform; the question is whether the party will be able to do so. In April, the KMT commissioned a report outlining priority reform measures for Chairwoman Hung. Fourteen major issues were identified as leading to the KMT’s electoral defeat, including poor implementation of major policies, unpopular cross-Strait policies, ineffective leadership, and asset management. Twelve recommendations were proposed to both resolve and prevent future problems, including a call to terminate the KMT’s channel of dialogue with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Broadly speaking, the path of reforms for the KMT can be divided into three categories—personnel, domestic policy, and cross-Strait ties (to be addressed in Part II of this article)—each of which will be examined below.
Personnel reforms: New versus old blood
According to Eric Huang, chief of the KMT Central Committee’s foreign media and international affairs section, the KMT needs new messengers. Chairwoman Hung’s Facebook page is thusadorned with cartoon photos appealing to the younger generation, asking Taiwanese youth why they do not like the KMT or refuse to support the party. Bringing in newer, younger blood will help the party shake off its reputation of “old dinosaurs clinging to power” and “geriatric individuals who identify as Chinese.” Yet, the KMT has largely failed to attract young people to its political ranks. Efforts from young KMT members, the Grassroots Alliance (草協聯盟), aimed to establish intra-party democracy and spark discussions of the KMT’s cross-Strait policies and overarching narrative. But the youth movement was short-lived, diminishing the prospect for youth-led, reform-from-within efforts. A broader divide between reformers and status quo supporters has taken shape within the party, as manifest in the recent expulsion of a pro-reform member.
If the KMT can get beyond its divisions, changes to the KMT’s internal selection processes have also been identified as a requisite reform component. Presently, KMT headquarters in Taipei appoints heads of local chapters; the chairperson further has the authority to appoint nearly all other major officeholders within the party, oversees the party’s core committees and directs all party business. According to one anonymous commentator, it is a structure inherently “designed to consolidate the power of the party-state’s supreme leader” that hearkens back to the days of the KMT as a “revolutionary vanguard and then-colonial power.” The KMT must overhaul its existing top-down operations in favor of a democratically-oriented, bottom-up structure. Successive leaders have promised to oversee this restructuring, but have failed to implement any such reform. Current chairwoman Hung has delayed reforms to the party’s internal process in a call to put such changes on hold “until several necessary complementary measures were completed.” It remains to be seen what or when such parallel progress will create the foundation on which the KMT can rebuild its personnel structure.
Domestic policy reforms: Rebuilding societal confidence in the KMT
In the aftermath of the KMT’s electoral losses, it has pledged to remain conservative, but with a new shift toward the middle class and its concern forsocial justice and welfare. Importantly, the party has also promised to support the DPP’s initiatives that benefit Taiwan, a move that places the security and longevity of the Taiwanese people ahead of partisan politics.
Chairwoman Hung has started to shift the KMT’s domestic policy agenda through the recent unveiling of four committees, a step she deemed as necessary to rebuilding societal confidence in the KMT. Each of the four committees is tasked with an issue area affecting key constituent groups. The Hakka Affairs Committee (客家事務委員會) will strive to strengthen the link between county-city administrative power and actively promote Hakka cultural activities at all levels of government. The Indigenous Peoples Working Committee (原住民族工作委員會) will promote policies favorable to the indigenous peoples and continue to protect their rights, as guided by the Taiwanese constitution. Two additional committees—the Women’s Working Committee (婦女工作委員會) and the New Citizens Working Committee (新住民工作委員會)—will seek to elevate the voices of women and new immigrants through policies that reflect their interests and service needs. Even if the work of these committees is able to gain traction within targeted constituencies, any policy initiatives must first undergo the scrutiny of the DPP-dominated Legislative Yuan.
In addition to the formation of these committees—and their role in maintaining the KMT’s relevance to key groups of constituents—the KMT has also taken steps to propose draft bills that will aid in changing declining public perception of the KMT. In one step to realign its public image, after a viral video of a self-described citizen journalist using abusive language against Chinese veterans who fled to Taiwan from China, the KMT proposed a draft bill against ethnic discrimination. Such efforts signal a willingness from KMT politicians to become more outspoken about the negative impact of societal polarization upon national solidarity and social progress.
Additionally, despite staunch support among the “old soldiers” and Taiwanese military, the KMT has not decided on how it will address civil servant pension reform. The pension system is an urgent issue for all parties, with one author even arguing that inadequate reform could lead the Taiwanese government into bankruptcy. But no party, KMT included, claims to have discovered a silver bullet. Given the fact that the KMT may be hardest hit by pension reforms, it has avoided any substantive action, even supporting a protest on Ketagalan Boulevard against the Tsai administration’s initial steps to consolidate public opinion around her reform agenda. What steps the KMT previously undertook—namely a decision to cut the pensions of some civil servants and members of the armed forces—came at the cost of the KMT member rolls, contributing further to the party’s electoral losses over the last year.
Taken in sum, the shifts in the KMT’s domestic policy agenda represent an effort to respond to the changing domestic socio-political environment. As with personnel reform, the largest challenges to a reorientation in domestic policy priorities will come first and foremost from status quo proponents within the KMT. One other challenge looms ahead, namely, how the KMT will manage the cross-Strait relationship.
The main point: As the Kuomintang looks to reform both its internal party structure and its domestic policy agenda, the largest challenge to such a reorientation will come first and foremost from status quo proponents within the party itself.
Correction: The earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Taiwan’s local elections took place in 2015.
1. Hao Chung-jen (郝充仁), “中華民國股份有限公司破產” [Taiwan ROC Inc., Bankruptcy], Business Today, December 2015.
Is 2049 Beijing’s “deadline” for Taking Over Taiwan?
Dr. Willy Lam is a Senior Fellow of the Jamestown Foundation, Washington, D.C.
Experts on Chinese foreign policy over the past few months have been focused on events in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, yet relations across the Taiwan Strait have expectedly undergone a relative deterioration since Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) became Taiwan’s president in May.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) held war games in the summer geared toward taking over islands held by hostile forces. Elements of the 31st Group Army based near Xiamen, where President Xi Jinping served in the 1980s, were heavily involved. Beijing has made plans to squeeze Taiwan’s international space by buttressing ties with the 22 countries that still maintain diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Chinese authorities have even prevented scholars deemed close to the DPP from taking part in forums in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Beijing has also laid roadblocks to Taiwan’s participation in APEC meetings to be held in Peru later this year.
In the realm of cross-Strait psychological warfare, some have speculated that ultra-nationalist President Xi, who is also General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and commander-in-chief, has set 2049 as the “deadline for Taiwan’s liberation.” While the word “deadline” has never appeared in top CCP leaders’ speeches on Taiwan, Xi has cited national unification as a key objective for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which the supreme leader hopes to accomplish by 2049.
This overarching ambition was first raised by Xi one month after he came to power in November 2012, when he uttered perhaps the most important slogan of his tenure: the “Chinese Dream” (中國夢). The Chinese Dream follows the timeline of the so-called “two one hundreds.” By 2021, the centenary of the establishment of the CCP, Chinese society will have achieved a “moderate level of prosperity” (小康水平). More significantly, what Xi and his Politburo colleagues call the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (中華民族偉大復興) will be accomplished by 2049, the centenary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
In his speech on July 1 this year, which marks the 95th birthday of the CCP, Xi noted that “it is the historic mission of the CCP to resolve the Taiwan issue and to realize reunification of the motherland.” The promotion of unification was clearly identified as an integral component of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” As Yang Yizhou, Vice-President of the All-China Federation of Taiwan Compatriots noted, “under the leadership of the CCP, we are compared to any eras in history, closest to the objective of rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” He added that “national unification is the necessary pointer to the rejuvenation of the [Chinese] people.”
Notably, on different occasions when he met with visitors or delegations from Taiwan, Xi has linked the reabsorption of Taiwan to the 2049 goal of “national rejuvenation.” He said for example in 2014 that “national reunification is a historical necessity [in the course of] the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” During a meeting with former Taiwan vice-president Vincent Siew Wan-chang in 2013, Xi noted that “taking the long view, the long-standing political differences across the Taiwan Strait must eventually be gradually settled.” The supreme leader added that, “it won’t do for [the differences] to be passed along from one generation to the next.”
While 2049 seems a long way away, the pressure exerted by the Xi administration on Taiwan has created a high sense of immediacy. Paradoxically, military intimidation in the short term may not turn out to be the most devastating. Analysts estimate that the Chinese naval threat to Taiwan will become significantly more severe only after the two new aircraft carriers now being manufactured in China go on-stream around the end of the decade. Different reports say that the country’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier should be completed by year’s end.
Economic coercion may prove to be as effective in the CCP’s effort to win hearts and minds in the so-called “breakaway province.” On September 12, some 10,000 Taiwanese hit the streets to voice their discontent over the declining number of mainland tourists. Demonstrators waved banners that read “The two sides (across the Taiwan Strait) belong to the same family” and “No job, no life.”
Yet the biggest threat to Taiwan’s national security could come from the need of the CCP—and President Xi, who, many believe, wants to stay in power until 2027—to justify the party’s legitimacy. It is common knowledge that, after the ostensible death of ideological socialism, with the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, there are only two viable pillars of legitimacy for the “perennial ruling party.” One is high economic growth; the other is nationalism. At a time when even Chinese economists think that GDP expansion will follow an “L-shaped trajectory,” the importance of nationalism as a legitimizing agent for the regime has increased substantially. If the CCP’s authority is challenged by social-political stability—for example, a large scale labor unrest event involving more than 100,000 laid off workers—it is possible that the leadership, under Xi, may want to divert attention from domestic woes by engineering a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
Much, of course, also depends on the extent to which the United States. is prepared to stand by the Taiwan Relations Act. As part of President Obama’s pivot to Asia, plans are afoot to shift about 60 percent of American naval capacity to the Asia-Pacific area. The perception among some American politicians is that Taiwan forms an integral part of an emerging architecture aimed at thwarting Beijing’s overweening ambitions. This could promote confidence in the Tsai administration that the United States will not stand idly by in the event of PLA aggression against the island. However, at a time when the international media is focused on Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea, Taipei needs to be more proactive in explaining to the international community the real and present danger that the vulnerable, self-ruled political entity faces from a CCP regime that has a poor record in observing international laws.
The main point: While the word “deadline” has never appeared in top CCP leaders’ speeches on Taiwan, Xi has cited national unification as a key objective for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which the supreme leader hopes to accomplish by 2049.
Breaking with Taiwan is Chinese Precondition for Vatican Thaw
John Tkacik directs the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Virginia. He is a retired U.S. foreign service officer who served at U.S. embassies in both Taipei and Beijing, consulates in Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and in the Department of State where he was Chief of China Analysis in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR).
When I was a young lad—just ten years old in 1960—I was honored to be an altar boy at a Catholic mass said by Monsignor Giuseppe Caprio, the Vatican’s newly appointed internuncio in Taipei at Saint Christopher’s Church on Chung-shan North Road. The good monsignor had run the Papal nunciature as an interim diplomat since 1951, and before that, he had been assigned to the nunciature in Nanking until his arrest in Nanchang by the Communists earlier that year. He was detained for three months before being deported via Hong Kong. I don’t remember him well, but he must have been a competent diplomat; he was later elevated to bishop, and in 1969 was re-assigned from Taipei to New Delhi. Pope John Paul II named him Cardinal in 1979 and he ultimately was Economic Secretary for the Holy See in Rome.
The Holy See’s diplomatic mission is probably the oldest one still standing in Taipei these days. The most recent Papal envoy in Taipei, Paul Fitzgerald Russell (陸思道), was elevated to archbishop and departed Taipei in April, after eight years’ service as the charge d’affaires, to become the nuncio to Turkey and Turkmenistan. He is replaced by Monsignor Doctor Slađan Ćosić (高德隆), himself a veteran Vatican diplomat at the European parliament in Strasbourg. It remains to be seen whether Msgr. Ćosić will have an extended tenure in Taipei, but I suspect he will.
Despite a year of fervid speculation on a breakthrough in talks between the Holy See and Beijing, the signs are unpromising that the Chinese government and the ruling communist party are ready to accede to Vatican insistence that Catholic bishops in China be subject to Vatican approval. In 2010, three years of talks on the subject broke down and the Holy See was obliged to instruct Chinese Catholic bishops to boycott meetings convened by the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA); auxiliary bishop of Shanghai Thaddeus Ma (馬達欽) denounced the CPCA from the pulpit and immediately was placed under house arrest. The CPCA proceeded to name eight new bishops without Vatican approval, at which point the Holy See declared the illicitly ordained bishops to be excommunicated.
Beijing may have felt some pressure from the move because, in 2015, talks resumed with the Vatican, which Papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, termed “very positive.” In October, while the papal delegation was in Beijing, Pope Francis assured an interviewer from Paris Match magazine that “China is always in my heart.” In June, evidently under instructions from the Vatican, Bishop Thaddeus Ma “admitted his faults” and said he should not have distanced himself from the CPCA. Last month, on August 4, Cardinal John Tong (湯漢樞) of Hong Kong published an article on the Catholic website Kung Kao Po (公教報) indicating that the Chinese authorities were close to an understanding on the appointment of bishops.
Alas, the official Chinese foreign language publication Global Times responded with its own sanctioned analysis on August 19, praising the Vatican’s new flexibility, but reiterating that “the Chinese government still seems somewhat suspicious.” The commentator reminded his readers that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) organ, the People’s Daily had “published three articles reiterating the importance of ‘sinicization’ and asking religious groups to ‘resist control from a foreign version of the same religion.’” The commentator added ingenuously, “This was the first time this phrase was used, and it is believed to have been aimed at the Vatican.” He pointed out that it is also Party doctrine that “our country’s religions are not subordinate to foreign religions” (我國宗教與外國宗教在互不隸屬), a stock phrase in common usage among the Party’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) and the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA). He stressed that, even after Cardinal Tong’s August 4 pastoral letter, head of SARA Wang Zuoan warned on August 7 that citizens “be alert to attempts of ‘hostile foreign forces’ to alter China’s ideology and political system through the use of religion.”
Almost as an afterthought, the Global Times commentator nonchalantly cited a Chinese scholar at Purdue University that “Beijing may gain more benefits from this deal … because the Vatican will first cut its official ties with Taiwan.”
It was a clear signal that Beijing’s official media see breaking diplomatic ties with Taiwan as the Chinese government’s absolute precondition for the Holy See. While Beijing’s religious officials seek to distract the Holy See’s diplomats with reassurances that “flexibility” on the Vatican’s part will smooth the way on matters of apostolic succession in the Chinese church, their primary focus is breaking the Vatican’s position on Taiwan. Once that’s accomplished there is no further Vatican leverage in the talks and no further incentive for Chinese “flexibility.” The Chinese state will pocket the winnings and walk away from the table.
One hopes that the Vatican’s diplomats, with nearly two millennia of institutional experience behind them, are a match for Chinese negotiators with their own two millennia history of barbarian handling.
Taipei, at least, seems to be playing its vulnerable hand with skill. Vice President Chen Chien-jen’s mission to Rome earlier this month (September 4) for the canonization of Mother Teresa was an outward success in both diplomatic and humanitarian terms. The Vice President is a devout Catholic: he received a sympathetic welcome from Cardinal Parolin and had an emotional audience with Pope Francis himself. He made a pilgrimage to the town of Assisi, the birthplace of the Pope’s 13th Century namesake, and made an emergency aid donation to the Italian villages destroyed in the August 24 earthquakes. Upon his departure, the Vice President averred that Taiwan “maintains good and sustainable relations” with the Vatican. One can only hope.
The main point: Beijing’s official media see breaking diplomatic ties with Taiwan as the Chinese government’s absolute precondition for the Holy See.