Did Lithuania do a U-turn on the ‘Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania’?

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda recently commented that it was “a mistake” to allow Taipei to open a representative office using the name Taiwan. Is this a climb-down by Lithuania following economic and political backlash from Beijing or more a reflection of policy rifts within the small Baltic state? And will the EU and the US pay more than lip service to stiffen Lithuania’s resolve?

Last year, the small Baltic state of Lithuania went against Beijing, allowing Taiwan to establish the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania. In response, China, whose economy is 270 times larger, rebuked and downgraded its diplomatic ties with the state. Despite these actions, Lithuania remained unmoved. But at the start of this year, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda suddenly said it was “a mistake” to allow Taipei to open a representative office using the name Taiwan.

Is Nauseda saying this because of external pressure or because domestic fissures have come to a head?

What did Nauseda say?

Nauseda told local radio Ziniu Radijas on 4 January that the name of the Taiwanese office was a mistake and this caused a rift with the mainland.

Notably, Nauseda said it was fine for Lithuania and Taiwan to open representative offices which do not have diplomatic status, but the only problem was the name.

This file photo taken on 18 November 2021 shows the name plaque at the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania. (Petras Malukas/AFP)

 

In Nauseda’s view, “The name of the office has become the key factor that now strongly affects our relations with China.” He also asserted that the name of the office “was not coordinated with me”.

He added, “Unconventional measures against Lithuania have begun to take place. For this reason, we must be extremely active and send a very clear signal to the European Union that this is an attack… on one of the EU member states.”

How did Taiwan and the mainland react?

In response, Taiwan’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said on 4 January that Taiwan has not changed its resolve to firmly support Lithuania and called for solidarity among democratic countries to stand with Lithuania.

Ou also condemned the mainland for exerting political and economic pressure on Lithuania. She emphasised that the US, the EU, the European Partnership for Democracy and NATO member states have recently ramped up support for Lithuania, and believes that “Taiwan, Lithuania, and all those who support the relationship between the two countries are on the right side of history and that democracy will prevail”.

This handout picture taken and released by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 18 November 2021 shows director of the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania Eric Huang (third from right) posing with staff members at the office in Vilnius. (Handout /Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs/AFP)

 

Eric Huang, head of the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania, said that he had not been asked by the Lithuanian foreign ministry to change the name of the office, and emphasised that Taiwan will continue to seek to develop substantial ties with Lithuania. The Lithuanian foreign ministry said that it had no comment at the moment.

Mainland Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a regular press conference on 5 January, “Recognising one’s mistake is a step in the right direction, but it is more important to take actions to redress the erroneous act of creating the false impression of ‘one China, one Taiwan’ and come back onto the track of upholding the one-China principle.”

He further asserted that “the ins and outs of how China-Lithuania relations encountered setbacks are very clear” and “looking for excuses for one’s erroneous act does not help to solve the problem or improve China-Lithuania relations”. He also warned Taiwan authorities that “seeking ‘Taiwan independence’ and secession is doomed to fail”.

What are the pressures on Lithuania?

Looking back on the past year, Lithuania has angered Beijing on multiple occasions, triggering the latter to take increasingly heavy-handed measures against it. For example, in February 2021, Lithuania’s Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs agreed that the country should withdraw from China’s 17+1 Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries. In May 2021, it passed a resolution condemning “China’s massive, systematic and grave human rights violations and crimes against humanity” and called on “the United Nations to initiate a legal inquiry into the Uighur genocide in Xinjiang detention camps”.

A general view of the Lithuanian Embassy in Beijing, China, 15 December 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

 

But the incident that angered Beijing most was Lithuania allowing the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania to be established. When Lithuania announced this in August 2021, Beijing recalled its ambassador to Lithuania that same month and asked the Baltic state to do the same. But Lithuania went ahead with its plans.

The Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania officially opened in Vilnius on 18 November 2021. The next day, the Chinese foreign ministry berated Lithuania for creating “the false impression of ‘one China, one Taiwan’ in the world” and for “flagrantly violating the one-China principle”, warning that the “Lithuanian side shall be responsible for all the ensuing consequences”. On 21 November 2021, Beijing downgraded the diplomatic relations with Lithuania to the level of charge d’affaires.

At the time, analysts thought that Beijing was just blowing hot air, but some Lithuanian enterprises and business leaders complained on 3 December 2021 that they failed to clear their goods through customs in China, and that their forestry and furniture products were left stranded at the port. Vidmantas Janulevicius, president of the Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists, noting that at least five companies faced this problem, said: “Lithuania has been crossed out… it seems that there’s no such country in China’s customs system.”

On 17 December 2021, Reuters quoted people familiar with the matter as saying that China has asked Continental, the German car tyres and parts maker, to stop using parts made in Lithuania. Up to a dozen companies mainly from the automotive and agricultural sectors were also affected. An EU official told German newspaper Die Welt on 24 December 2021 that “Chinese customs refuse to clear goods from other EU countries if they contain parts from Lithuania”.

A view of the Continental factory in Kaunas, Lithuania, 17 December 2021. (Alius Koroliovas/Reuters)

 

Taiwanese newspaper China Times reported on 3 January that 20,400 bottles of rum from Lithuania were blocked by Chinese customs and left out at sea. The Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation later procured the Lithuanian liquor in support of Lithuania.

Huang also announced on 5 January that Taiwan would establish a US$200 million (S$270 million) fund to invest in Lithuania. He added that Taiwan was also working to redirect about 120 containers of Lithuanian products that have been halted at Chinese ports.

Bloomberg reported that Lithuania’s largest trade association — the Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists (LPK) — said on 4 January that it was seeking assistance from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in talks with China over halted shipments in ports and economic coercion.

The report said that some 130 companies have been unable to clear shipments through Chinese customs or redirect cargo, while multinational companies are being pressured to end cooperation with Lithuania or risk restrictions at Chinese customs.

Mainland China so far has not admitted imposing economic sanctions on Lithuania, while last month Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said Beijing was imposing “unannounced sanctions” on Lithuania.

Gabrielius Landsbergis, Foreign Minister of Lithuania, speaks to journalists at the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Riga, Latvia on 30 November 2021. (Gints Ivuskans/AFP)

Differences and conflicts within Lithuania

One reasonable conclusion is that Lithuania irked Beijing and stood firm, which led to losses for Lithuania’s business sector. Nauseda’s comments might be a reflection of the unhappiness of the business community, and an attempt to ease the pressure from Beijing.

But it has to be made clear that the comments and stand of the Lithuanian president does not represent the overall political direction of Lithuania. In fact, attitudes within Lithuania towards China have long been divided, and the camp with the tough stand towards Beijing is the government led by Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte.

Nauseda’s comments are a manifestation of this division. A Voice of America (VOA) report says his comments show the split among Lithuania’s senior leadership when it comes to the tussle between Lithuania and mainland China over Taiwan.

An analysis in the Financial Times also said Nauseda’s comments on Taiwan have “shattered the fragile unity on foreign policy” between the president and the centre-right government headed by Simonyte. It noted that “Nauseda has already clashed with Simonyte’s government over its Covid-19 policies, which descended into open bickering between the pair” in 2021.

According to the official website of the president of Lithuania, the president holds primary powers in foreign policy matters and decides the basic issues of foreign policy. Also, according to the website of the Lithuanian government, the government consists of the prime minister and ministers; it represents the executive power in Lithuania, and it establishes diplomatic relations and maintains relations with foreign states. This is probably why Nauseda expressed unhappiness during the interview that he was not involved in deciding the name of the Taiwan representative office.

It is worth noting that the Lithuanian president also holds military power as the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, and holds the right of legislative initiative at the Seimas and also the right to veto the laws passed by the Seimas.

This picture taken on 18 November 2021 shows the building housing the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania. (Petras Malukas/AFP)

 

Besides holding ultimate authority, Nauseda is also the most popular political figure in Lithuania right now. Deutsche Welle (DW) quoted a report by Lithuanian National Radio and Television (LRT) on 28 December 2021 that a poll by survey company Vilmorus released late in December 2021 showed that support for Nauseda was at 52.5%.

The second most popular political figure — Social Democratic Party of Lithuania chairperson Vilija Blinkeviciute — has 43.8% support. In late 2021, she criticised the government’s policy towards China as “unprofessional”, adding that if her party had been in power, it would not have signed off on opening a “Taiwanese” office instead of “Taipei’s”.

In contrast, support is slipping for other Lithuanian politicians that have taken a tough stand towards Beijing. The same poll showed that support for Prime Minister Simonyte has dropped from 33% in November 2021 to 30.5% in December 2021. Foreign Minister Landsbergis has seen support fall from 21% in November 2021 to 15.3% in December 2021, while disapproval has gone up from 59.8% to 66.4% over the same period.

However, Nauseda’s stand will definitely be challenged. A spokesperson for the Lithuanian foreign ministry told Taiwan media on 5 January 2022 that the Lithuanian government welcomes the establishment of the Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius, and the decision was firm and unwavering.

Speaker of the Seimas Viktorija Cmilyte-Nielsen also said on 5 January that she disagrees with the president, and questioned why the president criticised the name of the representative office only after mainland China put pressure on Lithuania.

Lithuanian European Parliament member and longtime Taiwan supporter Ausra Maldeikiene tweeted: “Today’s news: Our pathetic President @GitanasNauseda suggested that Lithuania should bow down to the Chinese Communist Party after they called us dogs. WTF, dude?”

Taiwan Friendship Group chairperson Matas Maldeikis, who led a delegation to Taiwan in late 2021, also tweeted his disagreement with the president: “The Lithuanian President, like me, should be proud to serve the country that stood up to the threats of the Chinese Communist Party. #StandWithTaiwan”

Matas Maldeikis, leader of the Lithuanian parliament’s Taiwan Friendship Group, speaks next to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen during a meeting with a delegation of lawmakers from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, at the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan, 29 November 2021. (Taiwan Presidential Office/Handout via Reuters)

 

It can be expected that the differences in attitude towards China within Lithuania might grow, and Lithuania’s cross-Strait policy might also waver moving forward.

Lithuania has always sought the help of the US and the EU. On 3 January, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on the phone with the Bucharest Nine (B9) group of eastern flank NATO Allies, calling for solidarity with Lithuania. But while the US and Europe have voiced support for Lithuania, unlike Taiwan that has put its money where its mouth is, they are still only paying lip service, and Lithuania’s business sector is feeling real pain.

95-year-old former Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus recently criticised the current government’s handling of the Taiwan issue, saying that the conflict with China has led to huge losses that were completely unnecessary, because “it’s not up to (Lithuania) to set examples on how the world should behave” in terms of support or recognition of Taiwan.

An ancient Chinese saying goes that the powerful should treat the less powerful with benevolence, while the less powerful should treat the powerful with wisdom. In the geopolitical jungle, it will be difficult for the rabbit to win benevolence from fighting beasts; it will have to survive on its wits.

Authors: China Desk, Lianhe Zaobao, Think China

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