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International relations

Lithuania warms to Taiwan as Eastern Europe grows wary of China

Taipei and Vilnius open mutual representative offices and expand ties

Taiwanese Foreign Minister speaks about exchanging representative offices with Lithuania during a media briefing in Taipei on July 20.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- Lithuania's shift away from China began with a series of small diplomatic incidents.

During a rally for Hong Kong protesters in the capital Vilnius in the summer of 2019, Beijing's ambassador to Lithuania organized Chinese nationals in the country to stage a counter-demonstration. A few months later, a Chinese tourist removed a memorial to Hong Kong protesters at Lithuania's Hill of Crosses, a national symbol of resistance to Soviet rule.

The Chinese ambassador further angered Lithuanians in April 2020 when he told local media the virus did not originate in China. This was followed by a data leak in September that revealed a Chinese company had been gathering information on more than 500 prominent Lithuanian citizens.

A center-right coalition came to power in Lithuania in October 2020 promoting a "values-based foreign policy" under Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, the grandson of a prominent post-Soviet independence leader. This preceded Lithuania pulling out of Beijing's "17+1" cooperation bloc with Central and Eastern Europe in spring, after which the country began to tout closer ties with Taiwan by sending COVID-19 vaccines, as well as agreeing to open mutual representative offices.

While there has been some degree of political theater, Ivana Karaskova, founder of the China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe, said clear policy objectives lie behind the shift.

"The factors behind Lithuania's changing approach to China are twofold; not only that it wants to focus on cooperation with democracies, but Lithuania also [has an] economic rationale," she said. "The reasoning in Lithuania is that political and economic matters should be considered together when dealing with nondemocratic regimes because in the end the nondemocratic regimes are less predictable and business with them is more vulnerable."

The small Baltic nation of 2.8 million people is not alone in its growing wariness toward China, particularly as initiatives like the 17+1 cooperation block have produced far fewer results than originally promised.

The vast majority of China's foreign direct investment in infrastructure has gone to the Western Balkans, where it has mostly been financed by massive loans, according to a 2021 report by the Central and Eastern Europe Center for Asian Studies. Outside the region, Poland and Hungary have seen the most investment.

"Lithuania has certainly triggered a discussion across what is now the 16+1," said Una Berzina-Cerenkova, director of the Riga Stradins University China Studies Center in Latvia. "[They] have started to ask themselves since the Lithuanian decision, and have started drafting scenarios and [Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats] analysis on what does 'remaining' really mean for these countries? What are the benefits?"

Berzina-Cerenkova said that while the cooperation block might not experience other conspicuous exits like Lithuania, many countries could opt to slowly drift away and distance themselves from summits, or send lower-ranking envoys.

Lithuania has risked relatively little due to China's low level of investment. The total value of all China-related projects was calculated just 82 million euros ($97 million) in 2020 by the Central and Eastern Europe Center for Asian Studies. The country is also still protected by the European Union.

Beijing's "wolf warrior "diplomacy has also rubbed some in the EU the wrong way while its treatment of Tibet, Xinjiang and now Hong Kong has also come up repeatedly in the European Parliament. When the EU drafted its Indo-Pacific Strategy earlier this year, it took into account both China's growing assertiveness in the region and Europe's deep trade dependency as two important security factors. China has also begun to show up in counterintelligence reports, with even NATO taking note.

In the interim, this has given some momentum to Taiwan to expand its presence in Europe. Although it is only formally recognized by the Vatican, it has the appeal of a decent human rights record and a strategically strong technology sector. Taiwan's absence from the World Health Assembly during the pandemic has also brought renewed attention to how the democratic island has been squeezed from almost all diplomatic space by China.

"Taiwan has been increasing its outreach to Europe for a while now, as the sentiment vis-a-vis China in Europe is changing and Europe's role in the emerging conflicts with China in the trade and economic as well as tech space are becoming much more pronounced," said Janka Oertel, Director of the Asia Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "Additionally, the developments in Hong Kong have put the situation of Taiwan on the map differently for many European states."

Some countries have also moved from "a very institutional approach to a more network approach" in their engagement with Taiwan, particularly with the exchange of medical supplies and vaccines during COVID-19, said Maaike Okano-Heijmans, a Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands. She said Lithuania's louder approach to China and Taiwan may be not only about its "value-based" foreign policy but also a nod to Brussels that it can still maintain independent domestic policies.

Lithuania and Taiwan, meanwhile, announced in July that Taipei's new office in Vilnius would be named the somewhat provocative "Taiwan representative office" rather than the typical euphemism of a trade or cultural office.

"The significance is not in the 'representative office' bit, which is the normal wording chosen for Taiwan's de facto embassies, but whether the name features as 'Taipei' or 'Taiwan,' which is obviously incredibly political and charged," said Oertel. "For Lithuania to include the reference to Taiwan is a highly significant step and a clear affront to Beijing."

While both are still far from resuming diplomatic ties, there has been domestic discussion of whether Taiwan will see its "Iceland moment," a reference to March 1990 when the tiny Nordic nation recognized an independent Lithuania in the midst of its violent breakup with the Soviet Union. It was, notably, the first of the fifteen Soviet republics to do so.

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