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Lithuania Deepens Relations With Taiwan Amid China Tensions

Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania - credit: www.mofa.gov.tw/ via wikimedia
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Erin Hale | Voice of America

TAIPEI, TAIWAN — Lithuania’s new representative office in Taiwan has begun operations although it has yet to physically open its doors due to delays, according to media reports.

Lithuania’s representative to Taiwan had only recently finished quarantine procedures and was still preparing the new trade office, local media reported on Tuesday. A similar report by Reuters cited a Taiwanese diplomat saying the new office was still being “fitted out.”

Taiwanese media earlier reported that the new office would open on September 12, but the date came and went without an official announcement. Both Lithuania’s and Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to specify a date when the office would formally open its doors following inquiries from VOA.

‘Like-minded partners

The Baltic state said last year it would open the office to cement its growing ties with Taiwan even as both sides risk attracting the ire of China.

Lithuania, a nation of around 2.7 million, has emerged as one of Taiwan’s most unlikely yet outspoken allies in Europe as it pursues a “values-first” foreign policy. The two sides, which both transitioned to democracy in the 1990s, have been pulled closed together by shared commonalities like an authoritarian past and ongoing threats from powerful neighbors Russia and China.

In a sign of their growing ties, the 28-person visiting delegation led by Vice Minister of Economy and Innovation Karolis Žemaitis is the latest in a wave of Lithuanian delegations to visit this year alone.

“Lithuania and Taiwan want to build connections because we feel like like-minded partners that share the same democracy, rule of law, and human rights values,” Rasa Juknevičienė, a Lithuanian representative in the European Parliament, wrote to VOA in response to written questions. “We have a right and intention to deepen cooperation.”

The European Union is one of Taiwan’s largest trading partners, and many countries have turned to Taiwan for its advanced manufacturing capability and renowned semiconductor industry. The EU and other member states, such as Germany and France, also have trade missions or offices in Taipei, although they have been quieter in their support for Taiwan, observers say.

China regards Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy, as its province and treats any public engagement with its government in Taipei as a political rebuke. In the past it has been swift to punish Lithuania for its open support of Taiwan, most recently sanctioning Lithuania’s deputy transport minister for visiting Taipei in August. Late last year, Beijing also downgraded its relationship with Lithuania and banned imports after Taiwan opened a de facto embassy in its capital city.

Marc Cheng, executive director of the European Union Centre in Taiwan, told VOA that China may not respond immediately to the new trade office as it faces domestic concerns. Beijing needs stability ahead of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party next month, he said.

Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a former political advisor at the European Parliament and assistant professor at Taiwan’s National Dong Hwa University, also said Beijing might be running out of options for now.

“I don’t think there’s anything more China can do against Lithuania with economic coercion,” Ferenczy told VOA, although she did not rule out that China could retaliate against Taiwan.

Europe alarmed 

China’s treatment of Lithuania has alarmed Europe at a time when many countries are viewing Beijing with more wariness, not the least because of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Xi met with Putin shortly before the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and some analysts believe he asked Putin to delay his invasion of Ukraine until after the games ended.

Post-invasion, Chinese companies have helped prop up Russia’s economy by supplying it with much-needed goods and services in the face of Western sanctions and a mass exodus by multinational brands. China has also stepped in to help Russia evade Western sanctions by buying its oil, offering it a crucial economic lifeline.

In Lithuania, a former Soviet republic, an “anti-China” stance can be “synonymous with support for Ukraine,” said Una Aleksandra Bērziņa-Čerenkova head of the Asia program at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, although some in Lithuania’s business community are less enthralled by potential business opportunities in Taiwan.

Other European countries are wary of China’s expansion into the Indian and Pacific Oceans, experts say, notably naval powers like France and the Netherlands. But EU heavyweight Germany has also expressed concern. Experts like Rafal Ulatowski at the University of Warsaw’s Faculty of Political Science and International Science said they must now balance their deep economic ties with long-term political fears, according to a recent interview with the U.K. think tank Chatham House.

Wary of China, interested in Taiwan

A growing wariness of China and its intentions have been accompanied by a newfound interest in Taiwan in some parts of the Baltics, Central, and Eastern Europe — like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia and Estonia — where Chinese investment remains limited.

Taiwan, though a much smaller market than China, can still offer its trade partners access to its advanced manufacturing capability and world-renowned semiconductor industry. It is also a major buyer of European exports like wind turbines, telecom equipment, and chemicals, according to the EU website.

The shift, however subtle, has not gone unnoticed by Beijing. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has accused Lithuania of “colluding with Taiwan independence separatist forces” in the past. In response to emailed questions, China’s Embassy in Brussels directed VOA to a statement where Beijing urged Lithuania not “to be taken advantage of by Taiwan independence separatist forces” and damage bilateral relations.

China’s Ambassador to France Lu Shaye recently wrote in the Global Times, a Chinese state news outlet, that it has become “politically correct” for European countries to follow in the footsteps of the U.S. by adopting an “anti-China” foreign policy. He also said European politicians have “stepped up efforts in playing the Taiwan card to chase their own interests, attract public attention, and gamble for votes.”

Ivana Karásková, a China research fellow and a project coordinator at the Czech Republic’s Association for International Affairs, said that concerns about China are trumped by war in Ukraine — for now.

“Overall, on the EU level, after the human rights issues, sanctions, COVID-19 and last but not least, the forging of Sino-Russian alliance in February, there is not much of an aptitude to look for a positive agenda with China,” Karásková said by email, adding that even positive cooperation on climate change has been sidelined by Europe’s current energy crisis.

“That said, the EU would prefer to deal with Russia and China separately and not fighting ‘two theatres’ at the same time,” she said.

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