BEIJING: The foreign ministers of China and the Vatican have met in the first high-level encounter between the sides — a new sign of improving relations between two states with no diplomatic ties.

The talks between China’s Wang Yi and Archbishop Paul Gallagher in the German city of Munich on Friday come as relations steadily improve following a landmark agreement on the appointment of bishops in 2018.

“Today is the first meeting between the Chinese and Vatican foreign ministers,” Wang said, according to the People’s Daily newspaper, a Communist Party mouthpiece.

“This is a continuation of the exchanges between China and the Vatican for a period of time. It will open up more space for the future exchanges between the two sides,” he said.

Wang, who met Gallagher on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, called the 2018 agreement “groundbreaking”, adding that it “has achieved positive results”.

In a statement, the Vatican said the talks were “cordial” and that contact between the two sides had seen “positive developments”.

Wang and Gallagher “highlighted the importance” of the 2018 deal and reiterated a willingness to continue “the institutional dialogue at the bilateral level to promote the life of the Catholic Church and the good of the Chinese people”.

The People’s Republic of China broke relations with the Vatican in 1951.

The Vatican is the only European diplomatic ally of self-ruled Taiwan, which is viewed by China as a breakaway province awaiting reunification.

China’s roughly 12 million Catholics have for decades been split between a government-run association, whose cle­rgy were chosen by the atheist Communist Party, and an unofficial underground church loyal to the Vatican.

But under the terms of the deal agreed in September 2018, both Beijing and the Vatican now have a say in appointing Catholic bishops.

The first bishop to be ordained under the deal was Yao Shun of the diocese of Ulanqab in the northern Inner Mon­go­lia Autonomous Region in August last year.

The law in China requires priests and bishops to register and align with the country’s official church.

Published in Dawn, February 16th, 2020