The Vatican and Strategic Competition Between the United States and China

By: Juyan Zhang

November 26, 2019

Vatican Diplomacy in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

Sino-Vatican relations took a turn in 2018, when the two sides reportedly signed a provisional accord over the nomination of bishops in the Chinese mainland. Some regard the event as an important step for the Vatican to reassert its authority over the Catholic Church in the Chinese mainland. Some deem it a compromise of the Church’s image by simply signing such an agreement in secrecy with a communist regime. Regardless, the move represents a step forward in bilateral relations, and it is better than no move at all.

What many observers haven’t discussed surrounding Sino-Vatican relations is an even more important issue that emerged at around the same time when the accord was signed, which may prove to be an unprecedented challenge to the Holy See’s role in global affairs. The issue is the sharp turn in U.S.-China relations that started in the form of a trade war in 2018. 

So far, the U.S.-China trade war has continued for more than a year, and the rhetoric and actions of the two governments, in particular those of the U.S. government, all but show that the two have now officially entered into a strategic competition. The U.S. government policy of engagement toward China during the past decade or so is now officially over, and it is apparent that a strategic competition with a rapidly rising and increasingly affirmative China has become a consensus among U.S. policy elites.

That raises a big question for the Vatican: If it has been the Vatican’s policy to seek normalization with China since the 1980s, which occurred at around the same time when the United States reached out to China with a friendly gesture, what are its policy options in an era when the United States and China have become strategic competitors? How should the Vatican position itself in an increasingly tense bilateral relationship between two of the world’s great powers? 

During the Cold War, in which the United States engaged in a fierce competition against the Soviet Union, the Vatican’s choice was an easy one. It belonged to the Western Bloc. It resisted the Soviet Union’s communist ideology. It actively used international broadcasting to communicate with the Catholics in the Eastern Bloc. Although it engaged in dialogue with the Soviet Union toward the end of the Cold War, resistance had been the dominant theme of the Vatican’s policy toward the latter.

But today’s China is a very different challenge. China is no longer an ideologically driven country with a draconic planned economy. It no longer seeks to propagate Marxist atheism to other countries, nor does it seek to overthrow the global capitalist system, which it in fact very much enjoys. Its challenge to the Western world is more of an economic and geopolitical one than ideological. As the spiritual and religious leader of the Western world, how should the Vatican meet such a new challenge?

Fully bandwagoning with the United States may not be in the Vatican’s long-term interest, because the United States already has sufficient soft power originating from its culture, values, and institutions. The Vatican’s moral contribution will not be very explicit with the superpower’s global influence. Instead, it may only make China more suspicious of the Vatican’s role in competition between China and the United States. In addition, bandwagoning with the United States will more than likely undercut the Vatican’s responsibility for more than 10 million Catholics in the Chinese mainland and its mission in the Greater China region. 

The Vatican might benefit more by maintaining a “strategic distance” from the United States and positioning itself as a global holy land based in Eurasia that gains support from the trans-Atlantic community. The gravitation of its moral commitment should be more weighted in the vast Eurasian continent, where numerous religious, cultural, and ethnic issues are awaiting its proactive engagement. The Vatican-China relationship should be defined and narrated within the context of more than 1,400 years of religious engagement between two civilizations that dates back to the seventh century, when the Nestorians first showed up in China, instead of within a possible new Cold War between two great secular powers. 

If China’s global ambition is summed up by its Belt and Road Initiative, then the Vatican should have its own “Silk Road” initiative for Eurasia. It needs to consolidate and expand its influence that has historically formed along two routes. One is the ocean-borne route that connects Rome and Catholics in the Balkans, the Middle East, Goa, Southeast Asia, Macao, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Chinese mainland, and Japan. The other is the land route that connects Rome and Catholics in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Russia, Central Asia, Mongolia, the Chinese mainland, and South Korea. 

These two routes converge in the Greater China region, and Hong Kong shall continue to serve as the fortress of Catholicism in East Asia, as it has since the nineteenth century. Along these two routes, the Vatican will engage in numerous dialogues with Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as with resurgent nationalism in East Asia. Such religious dialogues will allow the Roman Catholic Church to better fulfill its religious duty, better serve as a global moral leader, and better shape the Eurasia’s religious ecosystem. With regard to China, the following strategic considerations might be important for the Vatican in the long run: 

First, the complex geopolitics surrounding China, including the unfolding competition with the United States, is going to be overwhelmingly resource-draining for the Vatican if it chooses to be an active player. Involvement in such realpolitik will cause erosion of its role as the global religious and moral leader. The Vatican can choose to shape the realpolitik by transcending the realpolitik. It needs to maintain a “strategic distance” from U.S.-China geopolitics and fully commit itself to religious and educational affairs, as it historically did in the region.

Second, Hong Kong has served as the Church’s most important fortress in East Asia for more than a century. A prosperous and free Hong Kong is without doubt an asset for the Vatican. The ongoing crisis in the city is a challenge to the Chinese government; but it is a challenge to the Vatican as well. A Hong Kong reduced to chaos or overtaken by a party secretary is not going to be in the interest of the Church. The Vatican may find it necessary to strategically define its relationship with city and effectively communicate to its constituents to promote its prosperity and freedom. 

Lastly, the Vatican’s involvement in Eurasia along the two routes will occur in the physical world as well as in the virtual world. As it had once erected the world’s largest radio antenna during the Cold War, the Vatican may want to fully take advantage of global and local social media platforms in its engagement in the Greater China region.

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