Despite Beijing’s professed sense of outrage, Lithuania is proceeding with plans to host a de facto Taiwan embassy and to open a trade office in Taipei. Sean King, a scholar on Asia and vice president of a New York consultancy firm, takes a closer look.
Taiwan and Lithuania have agreed to open representative offices in each other’s capitals not unlike the arrangements Taipei already has in place with many countries, including the United States, Japan and 21 others in Europe.
So, why all the fuss?
Well, Lithuania’s Taiwan move has generated extra buzz because it’s Taipei’s first such European opening since it broke ground on a Slovak post in 2003 and comes just two months after Vilnius quit mainland China’s Central and Eastern European 17+1 initiative. For its part, the Baltic nation says all European Union (EU) member states should instead engage Beijing as one from a position of strength.
Read more: Lithuania quits ‘divisive’ China 17+1 group
It also comes amid wider European discontent with Beijing on any number of strategic fronts and issues of conscience. Taiwan clearly deserves to be celebrated, valued and engaged on its own merits. But Beijing’s sharp elbows abroad and illiberal policies at home are nonetheless affording the island opportunities and openings thought unattainable only a few years ago. And as we’re seeing in Vilnius, Taiwan is clearly making the most of its moment.
As the United States has done since 1979, Lithuania formally recognises Beijing’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) government and maintains only informal relations with Taipei. But as Europeans from Stockholm to London and Prague recoil at Beijing’s internment of Uighurs, censorship within its borders and arrests of booksellers and scholars, Vilnius and others are tuning out Beijing’s more strident Taiwan dogma and are instead seeing for themselves what the island and its people are all about.
The fact that Taiwan last year held its seventh straight freely contested presidential election, after first democratising in the 1990s, only endears it further to Lithuanians, themselves 30 years removed from Soviet tyranny.
The pandemic has also drawn the two governments and peoples closer, as Taiwan sent Lithuania 100,000 functioning masks when the outbreak first hit. Vilnius reciprocated Taipei’s generosity last month, sending it 20,000 Covid-19 vaccine doses. Not a huge number, but meaningful and heartfelt, considering Lithuania’s relatively small population of less than three million. The Taiwanese are incredibly grateful.
Washington has praised Vilnius’ announced office exchange with Taipei, saying “all countries should be free to pursue closer ties and greater cooperation with Taiwan, a leading democracy, a major economy, and a force for good in the world”.
This follows the Biden administration’s successful push to include a reference to “the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” in last month’s US–EU summit statement which itself followed Taiwan mentions in the G-7 communiqué as well as Biden’s joint statements with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
What’s in a name?
Much is being made of the fact that the office in Vilnius will feature the word Taiwanese in its name and not the more oblique Taipei that Taiwan uses at almost all its other missions abroad. But this matter of nomenclature is yet another result of Beijing’s own doing.
The Nationalist Republic of China’s (ROC) seat of government relocated to Taipei in 1949 after Mao Zedong’s communists won the Chinese Civil War on the mainland. Taipei’s government in fact held the China seat at the United Nations until 1971 and until 1991 claimed jurisdiction over Taiwan and all the mainland (over which its constitution still claims sovereignty).
Both sides fiercely competed to be the one Chinese government for what they considered all China.
It’s worth remembering that at the first Tokyo Olympics in 1964, the International Olympic Committee, to placate Beijing, forced Taipei’s team to compete as Taiwan when it wanted to compete as the ROC. After getting back its ROC moniker at Munich in 1972, the team walked out of the 1976 Montréal Games when told it would again have to compete as Taiwan.
It once suited Beijing’s interests for the ROC’s then-unelected government to be associated with Taiwan’s landmass only, as it undercut Taipei’s claim to speak for China at large. But over the years, this merely contributed to more of Taiwan’s people identifying as exclusively Taiwanese, as most now do.
Yet even today, Beijing does whatever it can to erase any international reference to the ROC – still the official name of Taipei’s government that exercises control over some islands and possessions beyond just Taiwan – even though Mao’s armies never set foot on Taiwan and didn’t extinguish rival Chiang Kai-shek’s offshore regime when they had the chance.
The more Beijing tries to rub out any trace of Taipei’s now-freely elected ROC government from the world stage, the more the island’s leadership will just start referring to itself as Taiwanese, like it’s doing in Lithuania. And Lithuanians can engage the Taiwanese and call them whatever they like.
After all, these proud Balts didn’t free themselves from one communist giant only to be told what to do by another.
Sean King is a senior vice president at Park Strategies, a New York business advisory firm that represented Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2009 to 2012. He is also a University of Notre Dame Liu Institute for Asia & Asian Affairs Affiliated Scholar.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of LRT.