The synchronicity between the vote for Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the 266th pope of the Catholic Church and the election of Xi Jinping's as the new president of the People's Republic of China is an invitation to reflect on the singular interactions between China and the Vatican.
The world's most populous country, the People's Republic of China (PRC), and the Vatican City State, the smallest member of the United Nations, in what constitutes for both sides an anomaly and a loss, do not have diplomatic relations. The Holy See is one of the 23 sovereign entities that recognize the Republic of China (ROC), de facto, the 23-million people island of Taiwan, and not the PRC.
Both the Catholic Church (1.2 billion followers) and China (1.3 billion citizens) would benefit from the normalization of their relations, but beyond such a rapprochement would be the symbol of a more cohesive international community.
However, the status quo will be difficult to break. The two new leaders have daunting internal challenges to solve, they will also face an ongoing clash of two sovereignties over the appointments of the bishops and, more generally, the complexities inherent with the articulation between a 5,000-year old living civilization and an institution with 2,000 years of history should not be underestimated.
While the determinants of the inertia are obvious, there are nonetheless new factors which might impact the Vatican-China relations. First, the Latin American origin of the Holy Father makes him unique among the successors of Saint Peter, in a world characterized by multipolarity and the growing significance of the South-South relations. His Argentine background is conducive to a more discerning approach toward the world's largest developing country. In highly dynamic upward trends among non-Western countries, China is, after Brazil, Argentina's second trade partner.
Second, and arguably more significant, as the first member of the Society of Jesus to guide the Catholic Church, Francis is familiar with the Jesuits' traditional role of a bridge between China and Europe. Francis Xavier (1506-1552), co-founder of the Society of Jesus and disciple of Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), led historical missions in Asia but was never in contact with the Ming Dynasty, it is Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606) and his rare perceptiveness who initiated the Jesuits' direct work in the Chinese world.
Their exchanges with the Confucian literati remained highly productive for 150 years but, in the aftermath of the dispute over the Chinese rites opposing, on one side, the Jesuits and their strategy of accommodation, and, on the other side, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, imperial China and the Church entered a long phase of mistrust.
Following the conclave's choice, the Chinese government congratulated the new pope and asked the Vatican to be "practical and flexible" two qualities which are not antithetic with a Jesuit's mind.
In parallel, as the Chinese society is rapidly changing, the way Beijing looks at religion is evolving. Yu Zhengsheng, a standing committee member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party, chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, spoke at the end of January about religious circles and believers as "positive force" in today's China.
The country's success, confidence and openness grow simultaneously in the same proportion, and, by 2020, as China becomes the world's leading economy, her unprecedented level of integration with the world will certainly impact positively her relations with the Vatican.
In the very short term, the presence of Taiwan's top leader Ma Ying-jeou at the pontiff's inaugural mass complicates the equation between Beijing and the Roman Curia, but Xi and Francis will know how to focus patiently on the long term dynamics.
It is a series of gestures, symbols, "small steps" which will create a favorable climate leading to the normalization, and, in this context, Francis' actions on the canonization of both Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and his Chinese friend Xu Guangqi (1562-1633) as advocated by the Chinese Jesuit bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian would be both inspiring and useful. The friendship between these two extraordinary scholars remains the perfect example of what can be achieved when the best of the Western tradition cross-fertilizes with the Chinese wisdom.
The Jesuits and their Chinese interlocutors showed the unique value of intellectual and spiritual exchanges, their mutual understanding enriched and humanized the world. By reopening the contacts between the Catholic Church and China, Francis and Xi Jinping would not only revive one of the most significant moments of the dialogue between civilizations but they would also contribute to the solidarity and unity of mankind.
David Gosset is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), Shanghai, Beijing & Accra, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.