Hopes of improvement in the strained relations between China and the Vatican have risen after Beijing allowed Pope Francis to enter its airspace en route to South Korea last week, making him the first pontiff to do so since 1989.
Positive signs were also seen in Beijing's response to reports of the Pope's telegram of blessings sent to President Xi Jinping last Thursday from his flight.
While a technical glitch reportedly prevented Mr Xi from receiving the telegram, it was re-sent through Beijing's embassy in Italy. China's Foreign Ministry said Beijing was "sincere about wanting to improve relations with the Vatican".
Pope Francis sent another telegram to Mr Xi yesterday as his plane entered Chinese airspace on its return flight to Rome.
"Returning to Rome after my visit to Korea, I wish to renew to your excellency and your fellow citizens the assurance of my best wishes, as I invoke divine blessings upon your land," the Pope said.
Analysts say the ball is now in China's court, though many do not bear high hopes for a rapprochement in Sino-Vatican ties, which were severed in 1951, two years after the Chinese Communist Party took power.
Dr Anthony Lam of the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong believes the Pope's Asian tour, his first since becoming pontiff in March last year, has sparked overly optimistic hopes for Sino-Vatican ties.
He said the Pope's message on Sunday - when he urged China and other Asian states with no diplomatic ties with the Holy See to not hesitate in fostering dialogue with the church - could be viewed positively as an act of initiative.
"But it can also be viewed negatively, as he has placed China under one category along with other states like North Korea," Dr Lam told The Straits Times. China has not responded to the message.
Two key obstacles stand in the way of a restoration of diplomatic ties.
First, the Vatican remains the only European state that maintains diplomatic ties with Taiwan and has a diplomatic mission in Taipei. China's insistence on appointing its own bishops is another stumbling block.
Observers say the Vatican may be open to severing ties with Taiwan so as to build new relations with China, which officially has about 5.7 million Catholic followers, though independent sources put the total number at around 12 million, with the rest attending underground churches.
The Boston Globe's associate editor John L. Allen Jr, who covers global Catholicism, believes China's nearly 1.4 billion population is a key reason the Vatican is keen to restore ties.
"China is the last great missionary frontier on earth, with a burgeoning population, a deep spiritual hunger and no dominant religious tradition. Vatican calculations are that the 13 million Catholics in China could easily become 130 million within a generation if there were an opening," he wrote last Thursday.
Even Taiwan's China Post newspaper acknowledged that there is little Taipei could do "to prevent the Vatican from switching diplomatic ties to China should it decide to do so".
"Taiwan has just over 20 official diplomatic allies in the world, most of them being poor countries which need Taiwan's financial assistance. But the Vatican does not need Taiwan's financial help," it said in an editorial last Saturday.
Dr Wang Meixiu, a research fellow with the Institute of World Religion Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China could stand to gain from improved ties. She pointed out that the Holy See could play a bigger role in disputes between the flock and the government and so assuage societal instability.
But the major stumbling block lies in whether the church is an internal affair or an international religious affair, said Dr Lam.
"The Chinese government sees the church as an internal affair but the Holy See sees it as part of a universal church, though it is not interested to interfere in a country's affairs. It is a conflict of mentality which won't be easy to resolve," he added.
This article was first published on August 19, 2014.
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