TOM PLATE WRITES IN THE SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST: Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, brings a much-needed freshness to the stale air of international relations. Where many nasty geopolitical arguments in world politics seem deeply encrusted, this Jesuit priest heading the Catholic Church relentlessly crusades for new approaches to old stalemates.

As one looks at US President Barack Obama’s epochal decision to begin warming relations with Cuba, and then reflects on the pope’s significant role in helping make that happen, you do have to wonder whether this humble, articulate Argentinian isn’t some kind of gift from God. In a manner of speaking, of course: many people who do believe in God worship what would certainly appear to be a different God from that of the pope and his flock; and of course there are many people who don’t believe in any god at all.

Among them, presumably, would be all the 87 million or so members of the Chinese Communist Party. Their view is that this business about the Almighty and the afterlife is, to trot out Karl Marx’s phrase, a social control drug: “opium of the people”. Communist Party members are hardly alone in that dismissive belief. Many people in China are non-believers and indeed the vast East Asian region alone accounts for the highest concentration globally of the so-termed “irreligious”.

It is not generally understood in the West but the fact is that people who believe in a singular god of one sort or the other in East Asia are in the minority. Chinese atheism is anything but atypical.

Nonetheless, mixed in among China’s many unbelievers
may be something like 10 million or so Catholics, whether attending churches officially blessed by the central authority’s Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, or otherwise.

It is this substantial group of believers – twice the population of Singapore, for size – to which Pope Francis believes he must direct his ministerial attentions as, to him, they are a seamless part of the church’s global flock.

The Chinese government, headed by President Xi Jinping , understands this and has not slammed the door on the Vatican’s desire to exchange views. One of the tough issues is the appointment of Catholic bishops on the mainland, which Rome regards as its papal prerogative, but which China regards as within its sovereign power.

Expanding on the work of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, Francis is seeking to reach an understanding that respects China’s sovereign right while not cutting the cord of ecclesiastical continuity that links every Catholic bishop in every part of the world to the Holy Father.

For its part, the Communist Party’s problem with the Catholic Church is not that religion is malarkey but that Catholics are loyal to the pope in religious matters.

But they see the issue of loyalty in political terms. Even so, observers watching the unfolding exchanges depict both Beijing and Rome as sincerely reaching out to each other. Negotiations on the procedure for the appointment of bishops have reached a delicate stage, and the gap between both sides is said to be not insuperable.

To this end, Pope Francis has pointedly and understandably avoided antagonizing China in any of the well-known ways, most notably by keeping some distance from the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, who recently asked for an audience while visiting Rome.

The pope holds the Dalai Lama “in high regard”, said the Vatican, but his request had to be declined “for obvious reasons”.

Many who adore His Holiness the Dalai Lama were offended, of course, but the request had placed the pope in an awkward spot, and perhaps a more empathetic Tibetan would have thought to ask for an audience with the pope at a more propitious time.

Beijing’s problem is not religious but political. Tibet wants greater autonomy, if not independence – and neither option is acceptable to the central authorities. Like the United Nations and the vast majority of the nations of the world – not to mention the United States – the Holy See adheres to a one-China policy.

This means the Tibetan issue is a sovereign matter for China, not an open-agenda international issue on which the Vatican needs to have a public position.

On the contrary, prioritizing efforts to warm up relations with China and normalising the Church’s ministry, and thus securing a good place for Catholicism on the mainland is, in a manner of speaking, God’s work.

Columnist and university professor Tom Plate, author of In the Middle of China’s Future and the Giants of Asia series, is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, historically a Jesuit University