Lithuanian Foreign Minister Landesbergis meets US Secretary of State Blinken
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Lithuania’s Taiwan gambit

Vilnius has successfully tested the limits of Beijing’s “One-China Policy,” says Giovanni Giamello. In doing so, it has linked arms with the USA and set the bar high for the EU.

Lithuania is the first and so far only EU country to host a “Taiwan Representative Office” – rather than the more usual “Taipei Economic and Cultural Offices” (or similar) – and so remains the sole precedent for other states interested in testing the limits of Beijing’s “One-China Policy”. Beijing requires its partners to recognize only the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and to treat the so-called Republic of China not as an independent Taiwan but as a “rogue province” of the PRC. Vilnius’ defiance of this requirement should not be misread as potentially reckless idealism – it is a deft move by a small state on the geopolitical stage.

As sensitive as Beijing is about Taiwan, it does leave other governments a grey area in which to entertain economic relations with “Chinese Taipei”. Some 15 EU countries (and the EU itself) have offices there and 18 have allowed Taipei to open economic and/or cultural offices in their capitals. Czechia, Slovakia, Poland, but also France, Germany and Italy allow Taiwan to operate de facto embassies and consulates, though none have allowed the name Taiwan to sit above doorbells for fear of economic sanctions this could provoke from Beijing.

Lithuania’s deepening of relations to Taiwan is part of a broader strategy

But Lithuania is less dependent on China as a market and on Chinese investment – and has not been afraid to exploit this freedom. Vilnius this year pulled out of China’s 17+1 initiative to engage with Central and Eastern European Countries, signaling that Beijing had not kept its promises about investments and market access. But Lithuania’s choice in parallel to deepen its relations with Taiwan should not be simplistically read as a switch to “the other China” – it is part of a broader strategy to diversify its economic relations with East Asia.

In addition, Lithuania perceives Beijing as a threat more than other EU countries do– not least because of China’s relationship with Russia. The latter two recently held joint military exercises in China after a joint naval drill in the Baltic Sea in 2017. A year and half after that exercise, Lithuania caused a stir by putting China on the same rung as Russia and Belarus in its “National Threat Assessment.” That same year, Lithuania on national security grounds ruled out Chinese involvement in a proposed expansion of its Baltic port of Klaipeda.

Vilnius also stresses US ties as threat from China is seen to be rising

That move came after China’s interests appeared to be increasingly at odds with America’s military and economic presence in Lithuania and the Baltic region more widely. It was a conscious choice by Vilnius to stress – and strengthen – its ties with the US as the threat from China was seen to be rising. The US is Lithuania’s most valuable ally and security guarantor – the same role it has in Taiwan. Other Baltic states share the same concerns and some Central and Eastern European Countries are starting to take more interest in Taiwan.

But Lithuania’s approach still appears to be more assertive than those of its geographically nearer EU partners. One reason for this is the current government, elected at the end of 2020, which is led by center-right parties that espouse liberal values. In particular, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Lansbergis carries the torch of his grandfather, Vytautas Landsbergis, a leading figure of Lithuanian independence after the Soviet Union began to collapse in 1990.

By allowing Taiwan to set up a representative’s office under its own name in Vilnius, Lithuania has succeeded in strengthening its ties with the US. Washington not only openly supported the move, but also agreed on a “bilateral coordination action” against China – after China withdrew its ambassador to Vilnius and asked Lithuania to recall its envoy from Beijing. In the world of diplomacy, this action unequivocally proved the heightening of tension between the two countries and the deterioration of their diplomatic relations.

No other EU member of 17+1 dared to provoke Beijing on the Taiwan issue

While parliaments across Europe expressed support for Lithuania, the region’s governments took no concrete measures. No other EU member of the 17+1 format dared to provoke Beijing by pulling out or using the other T-word when dealing with Taipei – Latvia may even have given way to Chinese pressure by cancelling a joint exhibition with Lithuania and Estonia on the Baltic Way that mentioned Hong Kong. While the European Parliament called for a revision of EU-China policy and stronger relations with Taiwan, the Commission showed it was not keen to do so – or at least, not to that extent and at that point in time.  

But the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, recently spoke about Taiwan with his Chinese counterpart and affirmed EU interest in cooperation with Taipei – albeit “without any recognition of statehood.”  The EU may not go as far as changing the name of the “Taipei Representative Office” in Brussels, but asserting its interest in Taiwan echoes Lithuania. Vilnius has taken a clear geopolitical decision to stand up to China and side with the US. Now that the EU has started to make its voice heard, it is time for other EU countries that are discontented with or wary of China to clearly spell out similar stances.

About the author:

Giovanni Giamello was an intern in the International Relations team at MERICS from July until October 2021. He holds a MSc-LLM double Master’s degree in International Relations and European Studies from Aalborg University, Denmark and the University of International Relations, China, as well as a BA in Chinese Language and Culture & International Relations from the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations in France. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily reflect those of the Mercator Institute for China Studies.