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The president of Vietnam and his wife shake hands with a Vatican representative. Vietnam President Vo Van Thuong arrives with his wife Pham Thi Thanh Tam in the San Damaso Courtyard to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican, Thursday, July 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Vietnam formally agreed Thursday to let a Vatican representative live in the country and open an office, a notching up of relations that could have implications down the line for the Holy See’s delicate ties with China.

The Holy See announced the conclusion of the agreement during a visit to the Vatican by Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong, who met with Pope Francis and the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

The agreement still falls short of full diplomatic relations, which have been strained for decades. But the two sides have held regular talks since at least 1990 studying the renewal of ties, with Parolin overseeing the process for years, first as foreign minister and now as secretary of state.

A Vatican statement said the appointment of a resident representative of the pope to the communist country would support the local Catholic community, contribute to the development of the country and help serve as a “bridge to advance relations between Vietnam and the Holy See.”

The Vatican’s delicate relationship with Vietnam has long been seen as something of a model for its relations with China, which severed diplomatic ties in 1951, following the Communists’ rise to power and the expulsion of foreign priests.

The Vatican’s delicate relationship with Vietnam has long been seen as something of a model for its relations with China, which severed diplomatic ties in 1951.

The Vatican and China signed an agreement in 2018 on bishop nominations, which both sides claimed as their own prerogative. But Beijing has repeatedly flouted it by appointing bishops without consulting the Holy See.

Recently, Parolin acknowledged the violations of the accord and said in comments to Vatican Media that one hoped-for way to improve relations with Beijing would be via the opening of a “stable office” in China.

“Such a presence would favor not only dialogue with civil authorities, but would contribute also to the full reconciliation inside the Chinese church and its path toward a desired normality,” Parolin told Vatican Media earlier this month.

Vatican officials have stressed that the opening of a Beijing office would have nothing to do with the status of diplomatic relations or suggest an imminent transfer of diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing. Rather, they have said, a fixed presence of an office in Beijing would facilitate dialogue over the issue of bishop nominations and the life of the Catholic Church.

The Vatican’s agreement with Vietnam to establish a resident Vatican envoy in Hanoi comes just months after the U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, traveled to Hanoi to boost U.S.-Vietnamese relations.

Washington’s aim is to try to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region and comes 50 years after the U.S. troop withdrawal that marked the end of America’s direct military involvement in Vietnam.

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