Lithuania heats up in Taiwan as Eastern Europe wary of China


TAIPEI – Lithuania’s estrangement 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 on the Hill of Crosses in Lithuania, a national symbol of resistance to Soviet rule.

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

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

While there has been some political theater, Ivana Karaskova, founder of China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe, said there are clear political goals behind the change.

“The factors behind Lithuania’s shifting approach to China are twofold; not only does it wish to focus on cooperation with democracies, but Lithuania also [has an] economic reason, “she said.” The reasoning in Lithuania is that political and economic issues should be considered together when it comes to undemocratic regimes, because at the end of the day undemocratic regimes are less predictable and dealing with them is more vulnerable. “

The tiny Baltic nation of 2.8 million people is not alone in becoming increasingly wary of China, especially as initiatives like the 17 + 1 cooperation bloc 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 been primarily funded by massive loans, according to a 2021 report from the Center for Asian Studies in Central and Eastern Europe. Outside the region, Poland and Hungary registered the most investments.

“Lithuania has certainly sparked a discussion about what is now 16 + 1,” said Una Berzina-Cerenkova, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at Riga Stradins University in Latvia. “[They] have started to ask questions since the Lithuanian decision, and have started to write scripts and [Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats] analysis on what “remaining” really means for these countries? What are the benefits? “

Berzina-Cerenkova said that while the cooperation bloc may not see other notable exits like Lithuania, many countries could choose to slowly move away and distance themselves from the summits, or send emissaries of lower rank.

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

Beijing’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy has also rubbed some EU members the wrong way, while its treatment of Tibet, Xinjiang and now Hong Kong has also been repeatedly referred to 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 dependence as two important security factors. China has also started showing up in counterintelligence reports, even NATO has taken note of.

In the meantime, this has given Taiwan some impetus to expand its presence in Europe. While only officially recognized by the Vatican, it has the allure of a decent human rights record and a strategically strong tech sector. Taiwan’s absence from the World Health Assembly during the pandemic has also drawn renewed attention to how the democratic island has been kicked out of almost all diplomatic space by China.

“Taiwan has been expanding its reach to Europe for some time now, as sentiment towards China in Europe changes and Europe’s role in emerging conflicts with China in trade and economic as well as in the technological space is becoming more and more important. pronounced, ”said Janka Oertel, Asia Program Director at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Moreover, the developments in Hong Kong have put Taiwan’s situation on the map differently for many European states.”

Some countries have also moved from “a very institutional approach to a more networked approach” in their engagement with Taiwan, particularly with the exchange of medical supplies and vaccines during COVID-19, said Maaike Okano-Heijmans, researcher. principal at Clingendael. Institute in the Netherlands. She said that Lithuania’s stronger approach to China and Taiwan was perhaps not just about its “value-based” foreign policy, but also a nod to Brussels as a whole. ‘it could still maintain independent national policies.

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

“The importance is not in the term ‘representative office’, which is the normal wording chosen for de facto Taiwan embassies, but whether the name appears as ‘Taipei’ or ‘Taiwan’, which is obviously incredibly political. and loaded, ”Oertel said. “For Lithuania, including the reference to Taiwan is a very important step and a clear affront to Beijing.”

While the two are still a long way from resuming diplomatic relations, there have been internal discussions over whether Taiwan will see its ‘Icelandic moment’, a reference to March 1990, when the small Nordic nation recognized an independent Lithuania in the midst of its violent break with the Soviet Union. Union. It was notably the first of the fifteen Soviet republics to do so.

About Wanda Dufresne

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