The Baltic nation of Lithuania has recently become the European face of resistance against the People’s Republic of China — and also a new friend to Taiwan.
Vilnius is the latest to make waves over changes to its policies regarding Taiwan and China.
The first significant move it made was in May, when it announced that it had left the Cooperation Between China and Central and Eastern European Countries (China-CEEC) initiative, making the “17+1” forum “16+1.”
Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis said that the arrangement did not fulfill its purpose and provided few benefits to the country.
He urged the EU to abandon the 16+1 in favor of negotiating with Beijing a “27+1” format to obtain better leverage.
The EU is more potent as a unified front and weaker when it is split in half. The announcement was not necessarily shocking, as Vilnius had announced that it was reviewing its participation in the China-CEEC earlier in the year.
However, it demonstrated that even smaller countries do not need to fear China, especially if the national government has not seen many benefits.
Lithuania did not stop with the China-CEEC. In July, Taipei and Vilnius announced that each would be opening reciprocal representative offices in their capitals. This news, combined with Lithuania’s earlier challenge to Beijing, points to a new direction in how the country will approach the region.
Having representative offices is nothing new for Taiwan. Plenty of countries have offices in Taipei, and Taiwan has many offices around the globe in countries with which it does not have formal diplomatic relations.
However, Taiwan’s office in Lithuania does mark an important change in one respect: the use of the word “Taiwan.” The office will have the name “Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania,” which is the first for a representative office where Taiwan does not have formal diplomatic ties. The office in Somaliland is called the “Taiwan Representative Office,” but Somaliland is not an internationally recognized nation.
Even in the US, Taiwan uses “Taipei” in the name of its representative office, so this breakthrough in Lithuania is a noteworthy development.
Could this trend continue or might already existing offices change their names?
Beijing did not take the representative office announcement lightly. It recalled its ambassador to Lithuania and China has demanded that Lithuania send its ambassador to China home as punishment for the move. Beijing obviously wants to make an example out of Lithuania in the same way that it bullied South Korea after the US deployed its Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense system in the country and after Australia called for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19 in China.
In both cases, Beijing used its economic heft to penalize South Korean and Australian companies and brands. China is following this pattern with Lithuania, which now faces a similar boycott campaign. China has stopped direct rail freight to Lithuania and is not giving export permits to some of Lithuania’s agricultural industries.
China is not one of Lithuania’s top trade partners, so the country has less exposure than others facing Beijing’s ire. This limits what Beijing can realistically achieve with this campaign, and the effect should not be as severe.
In the case of Australia, which trades much more significantly with China, the boycotted goods found other destinations and the economic impact was not as severe as anticipated. In fact, some — but not all — sectors were better off.
Maybe Lithuania does not have much to fear in the long run — a potential perk for smaller states that challenge Beijing.
Other European countries facing greater economic exposure might hesitate to follow in Lithuania’s footsteps, but it is possible to limit the negative economic effects, especially if the EU acts in solidarity to combat Chinese pressure.
The most crucial development in this Lithuania case is how Beijing decided that a sovereign country could not open a representative office in Taiwan. The EU has its own office in Taipei and many European countries — not all of them EU members — have offices in Taiwan. Would Beijing have reacted so harshly if Lithuania made the announcement without leaving the China-CEEC? Is the reaction a result of the two decisions together? Is its reaction just over the inclusion of “Taiwan” in the name? Or will Beijing recall and expel ambassadors from every country that decides to open a representative office in Taipei or allows Taiwan to open an office in their country? Is this the new standard for how Beijing will treat countries that make independent decisions that suit their own needs?
The failure to open the Taiwan representative office in Guyana at the last hour is an opposite example of the Lithuania case.
The EU backed Lithuania’s decision. Its spokesperson said that Vilnius’ decision did not violate the EU’s own “one China” policy.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying (華春瑩) rebutted that claim, saying: “The definition of the one China principle is not to be distorted. The Chinese people will never allow the act of flagrantly engaging in official interactions with the Taiwan authorities and even endorsing those seeking ‘Taiwan independence’ while paying lip service to the one China principle.”
However, Hua was conflating Beijing’s own “one China” principle with the EU’s and other sovereign countries’ “one China” policies, a common tactic by Beijing in its attempt to isolate Taiwan internationally.
Whenever sovereign nations make their own decisions regarding their interests and how they relate to Taiwan, Beijing views such action as an affront to a “principle” to which other countries do not subscribe in their “policies.”
While the EU supported Lithuania’s decision, the real test will be how Brussels supports Lithuania now that Beijing is using its economic statecraft to punish Vilnius.
Will Brussels stand firm in one voice despite individual members having different levels of engagement and exposure to China? Or if the EU fails to fully back Lithuania, will other EU members act independently in response?
The Baltic nations of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia are quite close politically, economically and militarily, and have a shared history of Soviet oppression. It stands to reason that Estonia or Latvia could be one of the next countries to make a move in solidarity with Lithuania by also leaving the China-CEEC or by increasing cooperation with Taiwan. The China issue — beyond just Taiwan — is now an essential test for the EU.
It is still too early to make solid predictions about how the EU will act collectively or what individual EU members might do with respect to Taiwan and Lithuania.
However, in the case of Lithuania, things moved relatively quickly. Taiwan had donated surgical masks to Lithuania as part of its #TaiwanCanHelp campaign, and then Lithuania pledged to donate COVID-19 vaccines as a thank you. By the end of this year, it will have a representative office in Taipei.
The future will likely be determined by what Beijing decides.
Often, its overreactions backfire and do more harm than good for China’s image around the globe.
Harsh threats and responses push other countries to improve economic or political ties with other countries to their benefit. Whenever Beijing acts in retribution, its toolkit expands and shrinks depending on how the country changes course and how the international community responds.
Thomas Shattuck is a research fellow in the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is also a member of Foreign Policy for America’s NextGen Foreign Policy Initiative and the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program.
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