In an unprecedented move, Pope Francis on Thursday sent a goodwill message to China's leadership, which allowed the pontiff to use its airspace signalling a possible thaw in bilateral ties mired in a long-running contest for authority over 52 million Christians in the Communist nation.
Francis' greeting to President Xi Jinping as he flew to South Korea via Chinese airspace was a rare cordial exchange between the two sides.
"Upon entering Chinese airspace, I extend best wishes to your excellency and your fellow citizens, and I invoke the divine blessings of peace and wellbeing on the nation," the 77-year-old pontiff said in a radio message to Xi.
According to Vatican protocol the Pope sends telegrams to heads of state whenever he flies through their airspace. This routine usually go unnoticed, but today's exchange was unique because the last time Pope John Paul II wanted to fly over China, in 1989, Beijing refused, state-run Global Times reported.
As a result, observers see this papal fly-by as a small step forward in improving relations between the Vatican and China.
Relations between China and the Vatican became tense in 1951, when Beijing severed ties with the Holy See after the officially atheistic Communist Party took power. The atmosphere worsened in 1957, when China set up its own Catholic Church administered by the Communist government.
Francis had recently acknowledged to have received a reply from Xi in March this year.
Wang Meixiu, a research fellow with the Institute of World Religion Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Daily that to allow the papal fly-by shows China's courtesy and is a sign of possible detente.
"The lack of communication and understanding between the two sides hinders the development of relations. This fly-by shows Chinese government may hope to resolve their issues." Wang said the main obstacle between the two sides is that the Vatican does not recognise the authority of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the bishops it appoints.