By: Emanuele Scimia

The new course set by Pope Francis with the reshuffle going on in key Vatican ranks could open a window of opportunity for a future rapprochement between the Holy See and China.

For instance, while it has perhaps gone unheeded in Beijing, the appointment of Archbishop Pietro Parolin as Vatican Secretary of State in place of Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, whose tenure in office was plagued by a spate of scandals, seems to fit in a wider effort by the Catholic Church to mend fences with the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Parolin took over the key post on Oct.15. He was Vatican Deputy Foreign Minister from 2002 to 2009 and in that capacity played a prominent role in fostering the Holy See’s agenda for Asia, not least initiating a dialogue with China and Vietnam on mutual diplomatic recognition and freedom of worship.

Direct contacts between the Vatican State and Chinese government were resumed in 2005, during Joseph Ratzinger’s papacy. WikiLeaks three years ago released an Aug. 16, 2005 US State Department cable relating a conversation between Parolin and Washington’s then-Charge d’Affaires in the Holy See about the state of relationships between China and the Catholic Church. At that time, the Italian archbishop told his American interlocutor that there were signs that Beijing might eventually be open to some official Vatican presence in China as a first step towards diplomatic relations.

In Parolin’s words, the Holy See aimed at finalizing an agreement with the Chinese leadership to name a papal representative so as to overcome age-old differences and establish full relations. Though without any formal diplomatic status, the Vatican envoy in China had to benefit from freedom of movement and action, including the opportunity to speak to members of the “Underground Church.”

In his discussions with the US diplomat, Parolin also touched upon the sensitive issue of Vatican ties with Taiwan, underscoring that in case of advances in relations with China, the Holy See “would find a way to maintain some presence” in what Beijing considers to be a breakaway province.

The scheme laid out by Parolin in 2005 follows a model of bilateral engagement that the Vatican has already been promoting over the past decade with Vietnam to allow Catholics in that country full religious freedom. Although controversial in many respects, the dialogue between the Holy See and the Vietnamese government is still on track after the creation of a joint working group and the recognition of a non-resident Vatican representative to Hanoi.

Against this backdrop, Parolin’s designation appears to epitomize a middle-way solution to the long-standing confrontation that pits the Chinese underground church, loyal to the Roman Pope, against the Patriotic Association, the “official church” controlled by the CCP which ordains its own bishops.

Catholics in China continue to be oppressed while Chinese authorities reportedly detain prelates and followers. During a meeting on Sept.3 with the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Hong Kong branch of the Vatican Commission for Justice and Peace documented the arrest of four unregistered Chinese priests in August.

Pending the Vatican conclave in March, many observers did not rule out the election of a Chinese Pope (or more generally from Asia), in what would have been a clear-cut geopolitical choice. Partisans of this breakthrough thought that a pontiff from the Asian continent might open a crack in the Chinese regime much as Pope Karol Wojtyla did with regard to the Soviet Empire.

The time, however, was not ripe to choose an Asian Pope, but three names had run high in the lead-up to the papal election: Hong Kong Archbishop John Tong Hon, the first Chinese cardinal to attend a Vatican conclave; Archbishop of Manila Luis Antonio Tagle, a Philippine with Chinese blood and a fascinating communicative style; the Vietnamese Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man, probably the most prominent representative of the Catholic Church in Asia, whose diocese in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) has recorded extraordinary growth in the last few years – something that prompts China to look suspiciously at the model of relations ushered in by Vietnam and the Holy See.

In a broader sense, détente between the Chinese government and the Vatican could pave the way for a mutual recognition that would put a stop to persecution of Catholics in China on one hand, while sanctioning the importance of papal diplomacy as a valuable geopolitical asset on the other.

Albeit for different reasons, Beijing and the Holy See share an interest in maintaining peace around the world. Pope Francis’ initiatives against the war in Syria, coupled with the promotion to his deputy and top adviser of an experienced diplomat (as apostolic nuncio in Venezuela, Parolin succeeded in thawing relations with the government of late president Hugo Chavez), signal a renovated, proactive approach to foreign affairs by the Vatican.

Back in 1984, the Vatican state brokered a deal between Chile and Argentina to settle a long-running maritime border dispute over the Beagle Channel, a strait in the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. While it is naïve as well as inappropriate to believe that the Holy See can play an active diplomatic role in mediating maritime border conflicts in the South and East China Seas like it did in South America in the 1980s, the new Vatican lineup could otherwise deploy its “disarmed divisions” to turn down the geopolitical temperature on inflamed chessboards such as the Middle East and North Africa.

This potential evolution in Vatican diplomacy is ultimately consistent with China’s search for a stable international order. It is no coincidence that on Sept. 2, in an interview with the AsiaNews website, two senior Chinese government officials overtly thanked Pope Francis for his appeal against a much-feared US military strike on Syria.

(Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and geopolitical analyst based in Italy.)