Lithuania stands up to Beijing — but needs stronger support
Even as Russia’s Vladimir Putin menaces Ukraine, and Russian bombers train over Belarus, Moscow’s neighbor Lithuania finds itself on a collision course with China. The small Baltic state infuriated Beijing in late November by permitting Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius, the equivalent to an embassy.
Moreover, it permitted the new office to use the name “Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania,” thereby implicitly connoting recognition of an entity separate from the mainland. Taiwan’s representative offices in other countries do not use the country’s name, but instead use the name of its capital, Taipei.
Indeed, Taiwan’s office in the United States is even more circumscribed; like that in many other countries, it is called the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office.”
Not surprisingly, Beijing attacked the Lithuanian decision with full force. As a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry put it, “This act creates the false impression of ‘one China, one Taiwan’ in the world flagrantly violates the one-China principle … undermines China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and grossly interferes in China’s internal affairs.” More ominously, the spokesperson went on to state that “the Chinese government … will take all necessary measures to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Lithuanian side shall be responsible for all the ensuing consequences.”
Lithuania’s growing warmth toward Taiwan is, to a significant extent, a result of the formation in 2020 of a new governing coalition that included two parties sympathetic to Taiwan’s quest for independence. One of them, the Freedom Party, includes in its platform support for full recognition of Taiwan as an independent state. While Lithuania officially insists that it continues to support a “one China” policy, Beijing cannot ignore the more radical views of parties that are part of Lithuania’s government.
China has retaliated against what it deems Vilnius’s virtual recognition of Taiwan by downgrading its diplomatic relations with Lithuania. In addition, this month Beijing also demanded that Lithuanian officials hand over the identification documents in order to have their own diplomatic status reduced. That demand was so serious a cause for Lithuanian concern that, in mid-December, Vilnius withdrew its remaining diplomats from China out of fear for their safety.
Lithuania continues to resist Chinese pressure, which already extends beyond diplomatic vitriol. Beijing has suspended freight train services connecting Vilnius under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It has stopped processing Lithuanian applications for food license exports. Early in December, it removed Lithuania from its customs systems. As the president of the Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists put it, “It seems that such a country [i.e., Lithuania] is non-existent on China’s custom system. It creates additional problems for exporters.”
No doubt Beijing will seek other ways to bully Lithuania into submission.
Washington has declared its support for Lithuania’s decision. So, too, has the European Union, to which Lithuania belongs. The EU has warned of further consequences if Chinese pressure on Lithuania continues, but has not specified what the consequences might be.
For its part, the Biden administration could go further than simply issuing warnings. It could permit Taiwan to rename its Washington office — if not as the ”Taiwan Representative Office,” then at least as the “Taipei Representative Office,” thereby dropping the additional economic and cultural designation. Washington would not be the first to do so; Belgium, Denmark, Finland, the EU itself and Singapore already have Taiwan Representative Offices.
The Biden administration rightly has focused on China’s growing threat to the international order. By demonstrating more than verbal support for a small NATO ally it would underscore its determination to dissuade Beijing from not only bullying the island republic, but from doing so to any state, however small, that seeks to relate to Taiwan in any way.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.
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