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China bans tour groups to Vatican, Palau to isolate Taiwan

Beijing bans Chinese tour groups in Vatican and Palau in bid to pressure Taiwan's last few diplomatic allies

St. Peter's Basilica.

St. Peter's Basilica. (Wikimedia Commons photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) -- Beijing has ordered Chinese tour agencies to remove the Vatican and Palau from their list of travel destinations, in an apparent bid to place further pressure on Taiwan's few remaining diplomatic allies to jump ship, reported Radio Free Asia.

In a Chinese government directive sent to its travel agencies on Nov. 16, Beijing said that all agencies must remove the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica from their list of destinations. In addition, "Any travel agency found to be advertising these destinations in their promotional literature or other products will be fined up to 300,000 yuan," said the directive, said an employee of Phoenix Holidays International Travel Agency to Radio Free Asia.

This is the first time the Chinese government has acted to block its nationals from traveling to the Vatican. Since Pope Francis took the reigns in the Vatican in 2013, relations between the two states have thawed somewhat, with Beijing offering congratulations on Francis' inauguration, though they made it clear that formal diplomatic relations would be contingent on severing ties with Taiwan.

Since Pope Francis has taken the helm at the Holy See, there has been an increase of dialogue between the two states, which has led in an exponential increase in tourists visiting the tiny country in Rome, "all the Chinese coming to Italy come to visit the Vatican, the Museums and St. Peter's Basilica," said a source in the industry to AsiaNews.

The timing of the travel ban is at odds with the announcement Tuesday (Nov. 21) that, starting in March, the Vatican is going to send 40 mainly Chinese works of art to China, which will in exchange send 40 artworks to the Vatican.

China has recently used bans on its travel agencies as a punitive measure to "punish" countries when they do not fall in line with Beijing's political desires. Recent examples include South Korea, Sweden, Japan, and of course Taiwan. In the case of Taiwan, China has dramatically restricted the number of Chinese tour groups allowed to visit Taiwan to the lowest amount in five years, after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) took office and refused to heed the "1992 consensus."

In the case of South Korea, in order to punish South Korea for installing U.S.-made THAAD missile defense system in its country, China ordered the cancellation of Chinese tour groups to South Korea. An agent at a Chinese travel agency surnamed Ye told Radio Free Asia that such bans are never publicly announced, but rather the agencies are told via conference call with the implicit understanding that they must follow Beijing's orders or face being shut down.

Though the travel agencies have much money to lose, they have no recourse and must heed Beijing's commands. Meanwhile, China has plausible deniability because there are no official proclamations, "The Chinese government will never leave a paper trail for such things, but in reality, it can implement them very effectively," said Ye.

In addition to pressuring the Holy See to cut ties with Taiwan, Beijing may be angling itself to gain more leverage in insisting that it have the right to appoint Catholic bishops instead of the Vatican for China's 12 million Catholics. Beijing also may be trying to shield its citizens from being proselytized to by Catholics and Protestants who hand out pamphlets explaining Christianity to them at St. Peter's Square.

The travel ban to the Vatican could also be an attempt to restrict Chinese Catholics trying to make pilgrimages there as part of a larger effort at dialing back conversions to Christianity in the atheist state. Recently, Christians in southeastern China have been ordered to change images of Christ in their homes to those of President Xi Jinping.

The Vatican is the only European state which still maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Meanwhile, United Daily News reports that a similar ban has been put in place on Chinese tour groups traveling to the Pacific Island of Palau, which is also a diplomatic ally of Taiwan. Taiwan and Palau just announced an increase in the number of direct flights between the two countries on Tuesday (Nov. 21).

This travel ban could be an attempt by Beijing at punishing Palau for improving ties with Taiwan and incentive for it to switch ties to China. In July Palau President Thomas Remengesau was pleased that Beijing pledged helping Pacific island nations combat global warming and said he was open to improving relations with China.