Dr. Patrick Mendis, a former American diplomat and a military professor, is a Taiwan fellow of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China and a distinguished visiting professor of global affairs at the National Chengchi University as well as a senior fellow of the Taiwan Center for Security Studies in Taipei. The views expressed in this analysis do not represent the official positions of his current or past affiliation of his institutions nor the respective governments.
The recent US arms sales and the visits of two high-profile American officials have deepened the bilateral relations between Taiwan and the United States. As evidenced by the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act and the 2019 signing of a Consular Agreement, the United States has increasingly departed from its 1972 “one China” policy and 1979 “policy of ambiguity.” Today, the United States has more of a “policy of strategic clarity” resolute in defending Taiwan.
Uneasy about China’s reaction to warming US-Taiwan relations, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu responded that Taipei is “not seeking full diplomatic relations with the United States at this moment” (emphasis added). Wu’s comments suggest a forthcoming bilateral approach to undermine China’s “core interests” and cross-Strait ties. As a result, China is increasingly apprehensive of President Trump’s next move: a possible unilateral diplomatic “recognition” of the highly advanced island-nation, known as the “Heart of Asia.”
The Holy See is the most important embassy in Taiwan among the remaining fifteen, and the fear of Vatican’s eventual recognition of China is a growing concern for the United States and Taiwan. However, the Holy See has assured Taiwan that the renewal of the Vatican-China accord was “pastoral rather than political.”
Nonetheless, amplifying US-Taiwan relations could be another element of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s political warfare over his Vatican strategy. However, Pompeo’s approach recently failed when Pope Francis declined to meet with him. The Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin told reporters that Pope Francis “does not receive political figures ahead of the elections” in the United States. Evidently, the Trump administration has largely alienated US allies—including the Holy See—by acting unilaterally on Trump’s “America First” foreign policy.
It has become crystal clear to the Vatican leaders that the Trump White House’s policies are made with the Trump re-election campaign in mind. Prior to his arrival in Rome, Pompeo publicly denounced Pope Francis in an article and then tweeted an accusation against the renewal of the Vatican-China agreement, claiming “the Vatican endangers its moral authority, should it renew the deal” with the Communist Party of China (CPC).
Trump and his political campaign are now forced to advance a different but more effective strategy. Similar to the use of President Ronald Reagan’s political strategy against the Soviet Union, the White House has employed the Holy See to constrain China’s rise. The recent nomination of the conservative and Catholic Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court—which would make her the “sixth Catholic” on the nine-member court—is a part of a grand political strategy to counter China’s renewal of the Vatican agreement.
Reagan’s Strategy and Morality
With Reagan’s successful “peace through strength” doctrine in mind, Trump has seemingly envisioned political warfare against China by intimating the possible re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Such a purpose-driven decision would constitute the crossing of China’s “red line.” It would also trigger a diplomatic earthquake, equal to Reagan’s announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative—the Star Wars—as his “centerpiece” strategy to compete with the Soviet Union. Along with his CIA Director William Casey, Reagan enlisted the moral authority of the Vatican to undermine the Polish regime and other communist-bloc countries in Eastern Europe—a strategy Trump has evidently been deploying with Pompeo, the president’s former CIA director.
With the Sino-Vatican rapprochement, China—with approximately 12 million Catholics—demands that the Holy See adheres to the “one China” policy and break its diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which has less than two percent of Catholics among the island’s 24 million people. The Holy See and the CPC have evidently recognized their mutually beneficial strategic interests. The Holy See is the “heavenly-gifted diplomatic prize” for Beijing, endorsing China’s moral authority over human rights and its governing philosophy.
In fact, since signing the “secret” Vatican deal in 2018, the Holy See has been conspicuously silent on the Chinese treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, crackdowns of civil liberties in Hong Kong, and persecution of Christians, Falun Gong devotees, and Tibetans. More importantly, the Holy See was the only ally of Taiwan that failed to support Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization’s assembly meetings for which the United States made concerted diplomatic efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. The prevailing mindset of the Vatican over the plights of those persecuted in China has resurrected memories of the “complicit silence” of Pope Pius XII during World War II.
In God, Can We Trust?
Like declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, unilateral diplomatic recognition of Taiwan would serve as a successful narrative for Trump’s anti-China political warfare. The recognition of Taiwan would be a brilliant re-election campaign strategy to define his continuous “Teflon” presidency against China and to galvanize his conservative Catholic and white evangelical Protestant voting base. Trump’s next actions have the potential to solidify the direction of American foreign policy in the next US administration, whether led by Trump or Democratic Presidential Nominee Joseph Biden.
Pompeo may nevertheless make a historic visit to Taiwan in the future. During this visit, Pompeo could focus on ideas that failed to materialize at the recently-held Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) in Japan, such as an Asian NATO to protect American interests in the Western Pacific.
Over the past two-decades, China has proven to be remarkably adaptive and creative by defying American expectations and policy responses. Fully aware of its long history, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu has been realistic in terms of the potential for political warfare, maintaining that, “Taiwan’s defense is our own risk. It’s our own responsibility, and we try to prepare ourselves for the future scenarios.” Realizing Pompeo’s failure to convince his Quad counterparts to issue a joint statement in Tokyo followed by the refusal to have an audience with Pope Francis, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan has now expressed her willingness to “hold cross-Strait talks" with Beijing. Nonetheless, tensions are high with China recently conducting "invasion" exercises. Given the track record of the Trump administration with regard to transparency and credibility, China as well as the Vatican and Taiwan have come to the same realization: President Trump is no President Reagan.