In December 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen made the “call heard around the world” to then President-elect Donald Trump, and in January, she sent a letter to Pope Francis, the popular head of the Roman Catholic Church. With these overtures to two significant world leaders of the moment, Tsai demonstrated her grasp of the geopolitical dynamics shaping Taiwan’s future, which consist of both realist and ideological dimensions. While her call to the US President understandably garnered more attention than her subsequent letter to the Roman Pontiff and diplomatic ally of Taiwan, it is no less illustrative of Tsai’s objective: to maintain Taiwan’s de facto autonomy and expand its international space in a peaceful way.
In her letter, dated January 20, 2017, President Tsai indicated that she was responding to Pope Francis’ message for the 50th World Day of Peace, in which he exhorted world leaders to be active peacemakers, rather than merely refraining from war. Specifically, she outlined what he dubbed a “style of politics for peace.” President Tsai’s letter focused on two areas: nonviolence and shared values.
First, she reasserted her commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflict, even and especially in the Taiwan Strait. To this end, she echoed the Holy See’s global call for nonproliferation and disarmament. Addressing cross-Strait tensions directly, Tsai pointed out that the relationship between Taiwan and the PRC need not be understood as binary or as a zero-sum game, but instead should be seen as an opportunity to create surplus value for both sovereign entities. Second, she methodically identified the shared values held by Taiwan and the Vatican, noting Taiwan’s rich and pluralistic religious culture, as well as her administration’s emphasis on human rights, and the island’s longstanding commitment to relief and development work. Finally, she approvingly noted Francis’ contention that women are often at the forefront of peacemaking efforts, citing her own experience and achievement as an example.
The letter’s dual emphases illustrate that Taiwan’s president understands her task vis-à-vis Pope Francis to be twofold: she must acknowledge the dragon in the room—the PRC and its multitudes of potential Catholics—but must also remind a possibly wavering ally of common interests beyond the security and trade benefits of conventional diplomacy. In this case, the most significant interests are the shared values of religious freedom, the common good, care for the poor and marginalized, and a commitment to a “politics for peace.” At a time when the PRC has responded to Tsai’s election and her communications with then President-elect Trump by going after Taiwan’s allies in Africa and Latin America, it is not surprising to see President Tsai reach out to her country’s lone European ally.
Just as Tsai Ing-wen’s letter was not written in a vacuum, so Pope Francis’ forceful address on a “politics for peace” follows a year of rumblings from the Vatican. Many have speculated that Pope Francis is considering a reevaluation of the venerable “just war” tradition, which stipulates the conditions under which it is morally acceptable for a state to enter into or initiate armed conflict. These rumblings were fueled by a conference held at the Vatican in April, co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and the Catholic pacifist group Pax Christi, and endorsed by Pope Francis. The conference roundly rejected just war theory, encouraging Francis to write an encyclical doing the same. Indeed, the head of the Pontifical Council, Cardinal Peter Turkson, stated publicly that Francis might issue “a new encyclical letter focused on reorienting the Catholic [C]hurch’s teachings on violence, following a period of dialogue and debate on the matter.”
Another important contextual factor behind Francis’ World Day of Peace address and its application to cross-Strait tensions is his repeated use of the phrase “piecemeal third world war” over the last several years, when addressing local wars and conflicts. Essentially, he believes that we are already engaged in a third world war, but in piecemeal fashion, all over the world. In 2014, he said, “This great war is happening everywhere on a smaller scale, a bit under the radar… So many die for a piece of land, for some ambition, out of hatred, or racial animus.” Geographer Justin Tse, an expert in Asian religion believes that Pope Francis’ concept of “piecemeal third world war” stems from his understanding of the Korean War, and especially the fact of its continuity and of Korea’s institutionalized division. In this way, we see the apparently never-ending simmer of cross-Strait hostilities as another iteration of the “piecemeal third world war” that Francis decries so vehemently, especially when it is fought over a “piece of land.”
It has been reported that Pope Francis and his secretary of state, Pietro Parolin, have been aggressively pursuing what could amount to a game-changing deal with the People’s Republic of China, in which China would undoubtedly insist the Vatican sever its ties with Taiwan. However, if the PRC continues to leverage its economic and military heft around the world, in an effort to isolate its democratic neighbor—a neighbor that primarily desires to continue functioning as the vibrant, multicultural, pluralist, progressive society that it has become—Pope Francis may want to reconsider his readiness to sacrifice David in favor of Goliath. If the Taiwan Strait constitutes a theatre for the “piecemeal third world war,” active peacemaking will not look like a highly problematic deal with China, presently engaged in an especially acute campaign of domestic religious persecution, but instead will take the form of solidarity with an embattled and bullied Taiwan.
President Tsai Ing-wen’s letter to Pope Francis, then, should not be dismissed as a series of platitudes about peace but seen for what it is: a call for Pope Francis to recognize–in Taiwan, and in her administration—a like-minded state and an important ally. Taiwan’s importance to the Holy See does not lie in its massive population, as China’s perceived importance does, but in its shared values, the same values that Francis has elevated throughout his papacy. Tsai Ing-wen knows that in “piecemeal” wars that fly under the world’s radar, it is good to cultivate like-minded friends, and she has sought to do so here. In her letter to Francis, she has appealed to a unique and strategically important ally on his own terms, in order that he might join her in building a “politics for peace” in the Taiwan Strait.
The main point: Observers of cross-Strait and East Asian politics and security should not overlook Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s letter to Pope Francis on “a style of politics for peace.” In the letter, Tsai makes an astute appeal to Francis on his own terms: to support Taiwan out of a sense of shared values and according to his own emphasis on ending “piecemeal third world wars.”