China on Friday called on the Catholic Church to "remove barriers" to better ties, implying the Vatican should break off diplomatic ties with rival Taiwan, as the island's president Ma Ying-jeou prepared to fly to Rome to attend the inauguration of the newly elected Pope Francis.
However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying gave a more muted response than in 2005, when Ma's predecessor Chen Shui-bian attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II.
"We hope Taiwan will keep in mind the overall interests of cross-straits relations, and work with China to maintain the sound condition of [ties]," she told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
But she added: "We hope the Vatican will take concrete steps to improve relations and remove barriers to the improvement of ties."
While Beijing has offered its congratulations to the new pope, it has also made it clear that better ties with the Vatican, currently strained by the ruling Communist Party's appointment of unapproved bishops, can only follow a severing of diplomatic links with Taipei.
The Vatican is the only European state with which Taiwan—as the seat of the 1911 Republic of China founded by Sun Yat-sen—still has full diplomatic relations.
According to Chang Teh-fu of the Vatican's Chinese-language radio station, Ma would likely hold a brief meeting with the new pope.
"I'm sure there will be a brief meeting, because we have diplomatic ties, so it would be very natural for this to happen," Chang said.
While Taiwan has governed its own affairs under the Republic of China name since defeated Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war, Beijing regards the island as a renegade province awaiting reunification.
Currently, only 23 states have formal diplomatic ties with Taipei, as Beijing refuses to recognize governments that maintain such links.
However, a series of landmark trade and business agreements since Ma took office have led to an unspoken diplomatic truce across the Taiwan Strait.
Relations between Beijing and the Vatican have come under repeated strain as China moves to ordain more and more of its own bishops without Vatican approval to meet the needs of a growing Catholic population.
The Vatican typically responds by excommunicating bishops who accept Beijing's consecration ceremonies, saying that only the Pope can appoint bishops.
Chan Chi Ming, Vicar General of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, said the Vatican's policy so far on China's estimated 16 million Catholics was that only the Catholic Church could ordain priests, consecrate bishops, and minister to the faithful.
"He issued an edict clearly stating the policy on the Chinese Catholic Association, worshippers, priests and bishops," Chan said.
"This will still be the direction regardless of whether there is a new pope."
He said he expected some improvement in bilateral ties, but added: "This isn't going to change in a short space of time."
He said both sides would have to reach an agreement for diplomatic ties to be established.
"We'll see what China's reaction [to the previous pope's edict] is. It hasn't been very clear in recent months," Chan said.
China's officially sanctioned Catholic Church has between five and six million members, while an underground church loyal to Rome has an estimated 10 million followers.
Stripped of title
In a recent blow to bilateral ties, China stripped a Shanghai bishop of his title in December after he outraged officials by resigning from the state-approved Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
Rev. Thaddeus Ma Daqin has reportedly been held in a seminary since he resigned from the association on July 7 in front of a packed church in Shanghai during what was supposed to be his consecration as an auxiliary bishop, a position he had been named to in a rare consensus between Beijing and the Vatican.
His move was widely understood as a protest against the Party's political control over Catholics in China.
Officially an atheist country, China has an army of officials whose job is to watch over faith-based activities, which have spread rapidly.
Party officials are put in charge of Catholics, Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, and Protestants.
Judaism isn't recognized, and worship in nonrecognized temples, churches, or mosques is against the law.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Ho Shan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.