TOKYO -- Pope Francis left Japan on Nov. 26 after praying for peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons.
When a plan for the papal visit to Japan was mooted last autumn, rumors quietly emerged that the pontiff might visit China as well. If the speculation had come true, it would have been a historic occasion, as the Vatican and China are at odds and have no diplomatic relations.
The acrimonious relationship comes as no surprise. China is ruled by the atheist Chinese Communist Party, which is imposing harsh crackdowns on Islam, followed by Uighurs, and Tibetan Buddhism.
Christianity is also under strict surveillance in China. While there are an estimated 12 million Catholics there, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, which follows the CCP's leadership, is the sole authorized Christian organization. Only half China's Catholics are said to belong to the CPCA.
While followers loyal to the Vatican gather at "underground churches," they are placed under supervision and pressure by authorities. The Vatican is the only European state that has diplomatic relations with Taiwan while declining to recognize China as a legitimate sovereign state.
In September 2018, however, the Vatican and China moved toward a reconciliation with sudden changes in the bilateral relationship by concluding a drastic provisional agreement on the thorny issue of the appointment of Chinese bishops. Although the content of the accord has not been released, sources said the pope would recognize Chinese bishops appointed by Beijing.
While several years may be needed for a full rapprochement, the pope and Chinese President Xi Jinping may meet for the first time to pave the way for it, according to numerous Vatican officials.
New York, home to the U.N. General Assembly, and Rome, where the Holy See is located, are leading candidates to host the meeting between the pope and Xi. The meeting, if it is ever held, will mark a significant turn of events.
Voices criticizing the Vatican's approach to China are often heard in the U.S., Europe and Hong Kong, among others, out of concern that conciliation with the CCP, which restricts and oppresses religions, would not only damage the authority of the Holy See but also allow Beijing to abuse it.
The criticism is understandable. Pressing forward with the "sinicization" of religions, Xi is trying to place underground churches under the wing of the CPCA. If China's rapprochement with the Vatican advances, Xi would grow more bullish and accelerate his move to disband and absorb underground churches.
Xi also wants to use the prestige of the Vatican to counter the U.S. amid increasing tensions between Beijing and Washington. Ultimately, it is inevitable that he would be eager for the Vatican to sever its diplomatic relations with Taiwan and finalize its isolation.
The Vatican's rapprochement with China, which it is seen to aspire to, is indeed an extremely risky gamble. From the viewpoint of international politics, however, I believe the move will provide significant benefits in the long run.
I say this because it is riskier to allow China's ambition of placing religions under control indefinitely to go unchecked. At present, the pope cannot directly approach followers of underground churches even if they are spiritually connected. In addition, CPCA members are completely outside the influence of the Vatican.
Although the situation will not be fully resolved even if the Holy See and Beijing reach a settlement, it will mark a step forward, though small, in terms of missionary work in China.
"Generally speaking, rapprochement with China will offer many benefits to the Vatican, though it will be accompanied by risks," said Kagefumi Ueno, former Japanese ambassador to the Holy See. "Churches authorized by China will be connected to and have exchanges with the Vatican. If religious brothers and sisters of the Vatican can readily work in China, activities by churches will be smoothly supervised from within."
As the saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained. But it will do the Vatican more harm than good if the pope is drawn into China's trap. When I asked Vatican officials about such a pitfall, they said the history of missionary work in China has always been accompanied by risks since it began in the seventh century.
In fact, the Islamic Yuan Dynasty was created in the 13th century and the communist regime was born in 1949. But the continuation of missionary work, though forced to make compromises from time to time, has resulted in an increase in the number of followers, they said.
In other words, they maintain that the Vatican will achieve nothing if it waits until China fully guarantees freedom to worship. I agree with them, and believe that the Vatican should first crack open the door of the communist regime by incurring some costs to gain a foothold for propagandism.
The tug-of-war between the Vatican seeking to expand Christianity in China and Beijing wishing to take advantage of the pope's prestige is likely to go through twists and turns. But if viewed as unfolding over a span of decades, it is expected to benefit the Holy See.
It will be difficult for China to "sinicize" religions indefinitely no matter how sternly it implements social crackdowns.
"The Holly See has always spread into foreign countries and gradually changed the societies from within," said Raffaele Marchetti, a professor at Libera Universita Internazionale degli Studi Sociali Guido Carli, an independent university in Rome, who is familiar with papal diplomacy. "China may be confident that it can control religions in its society. But once Christianity gains momentum in China, it will become more difficult for the Communist Party to control it. The Holly See must know it from 2000 years of its history," he said.
As no state in Europe will maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan if the pope reaches a full conciliation with China, it will be necessary to prevent Beijing from becoming more aggressive and resorting to harder measures against Taiwan.
To avoid such a consequence, word is circulating that the Holy See is considering a surprise move involving the conclusion of diplomatic relations between the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and Taiwan. Although Japan, the U.S. and other countries do not recognize the SMOM as a legitimate sovereign state, the Catholic lay religious order maintains diplomatic relations with some 100 members of the U.N.
In the history of mankind, religion and politics have kept interacting with each other amid changing world orders. The effects of the Vatican's Asian diplomacy cannot be underestimated.