In a few weeks, the red and blue flags of Taiwan will fly over Vilnius. Lithuania announced in early July that an official representation of the island would open in its capital. Since then, the tone has been rising with Beijing. China, which considers Taiwan to be part of its territory, is opposed to any official recognition of the island, and only tolerates the opening of diplomatic posts under the name of “Taipei Representative Office” (the capital of the island) as is the case in Paris. But the new post in Vilnius will be called “Taiwan Representative Office”. This wording does not recognize Taiwan as a state since it is a representative office and not an embassy, but the simple mention of the word “Taiwan” seems to give greater legitimacy to the island authorities. A decision that was perceived as a provocation by Beijing, which recalled its ambassador from Vilnius and told the Lithuanian ambassador that she had to leave the Chinese territory. “I had just arrived in Beijing, […] when I was informed that I was asked to leave,” Diana Mickeviciene said Wednesday night in an email to AFP.
“Infringement of sovereignty”
Lithuania clarified that it still respected the “one China principle” but that it was “determined to develop mutually beneficial relations with Taiwan.” A justification that did not calm the Chinese authorities. The spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry replied that it was “a serious infringement of its sovereignty”. “One cannot, on the one hand, say that one respects the principle of one China, and on the other hand openly have official relations with the Taiwanese authorities,” he hammered.
Until 2018, the two countries had very good relations. Lithuania was part of the 17+1 economic cooperation forum that brings together China and seventeen countries of Central and Eastern Europe. With this group, Beijing promised to strengthen trade and build new transport infrastructure in the region, in a European extension of China’s New Silk Roads policy. But the cooperation did not convince Vilnius, which slammed the door in May, after having sulked the last virtual summit held in February.
Una Aleksandra Berzina-Cerenkova, a professor at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs and a specialist in Sino-Baltic relations, points to three main factors in this about-face. First of all, the 17+1 format has disappointed,” she says. Lithuania had welcomed this initiative with great optimism. It expected several economic benefits, such as increased exports to China. But these expectations did not materialize.” The situation has subsequently worsened with the growing confrontation between Beijing and Washington, one of Lithuania’s key allies. “In 2019, China wanted to buy shares in the country’s main port, Klaipèda, but Lithuania eventually refused because of U.S. pressure. Finally, the human rights issue in Hong Kong and Xinjiang has negatively influenced public opinion on China,” she concludes. The new Lithuanian government in power since October 2020 has echoed this. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gabrielius Landsbergis, has chosen “a policy based on values” and has not spared Beijing.
In addition to the decision to leave the 17+1 forum, the parliament recognized the genocide of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and dismissed Huawei in favor of the Swedish operator Telia for 5G equipment. At the same time, the Baltic country has gradually strengthened its ties with Taiwan. “Since it no longer enjoys good trade relations with China and is looking for new economic partners, Lithuania has logically turned to Taiwan,” explains Una Aleksandra Berzina-Cerenkova. On October 8, 2020, a Lithuanian-Taiwanese forum was established in Vilnius to increase cooperation between the two countries. Covid diplomacy has also been put into action. Last year, during the first wave of the pandemic, Taiwan donated 100,000 masks to Lithuania. This year, it was the Baltic country that lent its support, offering 20,000 doses of vaccine when the island was in short supply. The last step is the official recognition of Taiwan as a state in its own right. Only fifteen countries in the world currently recognize this status. For the time being, Lithuania does not yet seem ready to join them.