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Vatican diplomacy: Japan has chance to learn from the best

Pope's vast intelligence-gathering network offers insight to the world

Pope Francis is carrying on the Vatican's tradition of diplomatic activism with a trip to Thailand and Japan in November. Both countries have very small Catholic flocks.   © Getty Images

TOKYO -- Pope Francis' visit to Japan on Nov. 23-26 will offer a great opportunity for the Japanese government to beef up its ties with the Vatican, which has the diplomatic influence to reshape the geopolitical landscape in Asia and around the world.

The pope will kick off his Asian tour with a visit to Thailand from Nov. 20 to 23. His trip to Japan will be the first by a pontiff in 38 years. While in Japan, Pope Francis will meet Emperor Naruhito and travel to Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Besides being the head of the Roman Catholic Church, which has 1.3 billion followers worldwide, the pope is also the sovereign of Vatican City, an independent city-state surrounded by Rome. His messages, which are likely to touch on nuclear disarmament and human rights, will attract international attention.

The two Asian host nations should not squander the chance to enhance their diplomatic cooperation with the Vatican, which could redraw the strategic map in Asia through its relationship with China.

Because it is tiny, the Holy See's diplomatic clout tends to be underestimated. The Vatican is in fact the world's smallest sovereign state, covering an area only a little more than one-third as large as the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The entire Vatican, with the Apostolic Palace, the pope's official residence, and gardens, could be mistaken for an especially grand park.

The Holy See has long practiced a methodical, discreet brand of diplomacy, but it flexes its surprisingly powerful diplomatic muscle on occasion. The Vatican was, for example, deeply involved in negotiations to end World War I and II. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the Vatican mediated between U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev, helping to prevent a nuclear war.

The Vatican is the world's smallest sovereign state, occupying area just over one-third the size of the Imperial Palace grounds in Tokyo.   © AP

Toward the end of the Cold War, Pope John Paul II paid several visits to his native Poland to provide spiritual support to the pro-democracy movement there. His efforts helped sustain the movement that led to the end of communist rule in Poland, and eventually in all of Eastern Europe.

Pope Francis has also been credited with some remarkable achievements on the world stage. He helped broker the establishment of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the U.S. by using the bully pulpit of the papacy to mediate between former U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.

In February, Francis held talks with Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido in response to a request from the country's embattled president, Nicolas Maduro, to help end the political crisis there. The same month, he made a landmark visit to the United Arab Emirates, becoming the first Roman Catholic pontiff to visit the Arabian Peninsula.

Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, who acts as a sort of foreign minister for the Vatican, explained the reasons for the Holy See's diplomatic activism. "The purpose of the Holy See's diplomacy is to engage with countries and major international organizations to promote the well-being of humanity," Gallagher told Nikkei. "In addition to that, there is the divine mission of the church to promote the values of the gospel." The Vatican stresses diplomacy because of the importance of peace to the free exercise of religion.

One key to the Vatican's global diplomatic clout, according to experts in Rome, is its intelligence network, which puts that of many big countries to shame. The Vatican sits atop of the hierarchy of the Catholic church, which controls a far-reaching network of bishops, priests and deacons who provide valuable information about the countries and communities they serve. This network at times brings to the Vatican information of which even big powers are unaware.

The Vatican has diplomatic relationships with around 180 countries and operates diplomatic missions, called apostolic nunciatures, in large ones. One country that has shown strong interest in building good relations with the Holy See is perhaps surprising: Iran.

Sources in the Vatican say Iranian diplomats are regularly seen at events organized by the Holy See and are working eagerly to build contacts within the city. Iran has one of the largest foreign diplomatic corps in the Vatican, according to the sources.

The Catholic church's diplomatic prowess is supported by the skills of its experienced diplomats and underpinned by a long tradition of papal diplomacy. Indeed, the Vatican is, in a sense, the world's oldest diplomatic organization, with around five centuries of history. In principle, its diplomats go through four years of demanding training and are required to master at least two foreign languages. The Vatican is also good at keeping secrets, thanks to its highly disciplined and competent state functionaries.

A group of pilgrims from China waves a Chinese flag during Pope Francis' weekly audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in May.   © Getty Images

These capabilities make dialogue and cooperation with the Holy See uniquely valuable for countries around the world, including in Asia. The Vatican's intelligence-gathering network reaches places where Asian nations do not have a large presence, such as Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Especially important for many Asian nations is the Vatican's China policy. The Vatican and Beijing signed a landmark deal last September that gives each side a say in how Catholic bishops are nominated and approved in China. The agreement has put the two sides on a path toward better relations after more than six decades of conflict.

Although details of the agreement have not been disclosed, it seems that the Vatican appoints bishops in China from a list of candidates approved by Beijing.

Some Catholics have welcomed the agreement, which they say will make it easier to spread the faith in China. But critics argue that it could make things even harder for "underground churches," which the government does not recognize and which face persecution by Beijing.

The agreement could also have huge implications for Asia's geopolitics. The Vatican severed ties with officially atheist China soon after the communist revolution and has instead maintained relations with Taiwan. If it were to switch recognition to Beijing, it would be a heavy blow to Taiwan, which has been losing allies as China works to isolate the island, which it sees as a renegade province.

In September, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati cut ties with Taiwan in the latest sign that China's diplomatic campaign against Taiwan is working. Taipei now has formal relationships with just 15 countries. Any move by the Vatican along similar lines would deepen its international isolation and have serious diplomatic repercussions. China would find it easier to take an even more hard-line stance toward Taiwan and be tempted to take actions that further raise tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

A diplomatic source familiar with Vatican foreign policy says it is unlikely the Holy See will establish formal relations with China anytime soon. But, the source added, there may be more informal contacts and exchanges between the two sides.

The Vatican is not well understood by most people in Japan, where Catholics account for less than 0.5% of the population, or in largely Buddhist Thailand.

But closer ties and deeper communications with the Vatican would offer great benefits to both countries and the rest of Asia. Pope Francis' visit could help forge stronger links between the Vatican and Asia.

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