On Sunday, China downgraded its diplomatic ties with Lithuania in response to Taiwan opening a representation in the Baltic state. But as Beijing engages in fiery rhetoric, it might try to deescalate behind closed doors, observers say.
China has been threatening to take action against Lithuania ever since Vilnius announced that Taipei would open a representation in the country using the name ‘Taiwan’.
Beijing has said it was a move toward recognising the self-ruled island as an independent country which violates the One China principle. Vilnius has denied these allegations.
Last August, China’s Foreign Ministry recalled its ambassador to Lithuania and told Vilnius to follow suit. Lithuanian Ambassador Diana Mickevičienė returned from Beijing in early September.
According to Una Aleksandra Bērziņa-Čerenkova, head of the Asia programme at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, the purpose of such actions might be to humiliate Lithuania, but China is not seeking to sever diplomatic relations.
“Lowering the level of diplomatic representation to chargé d’affaires means that China still wants to be present in Lithuania […],” Bērziņa-Čerenkova told LRT.lt. “Chinese embassies in smaller European states have been effectively run by chargés d’affaires before, so this will not affect the efficiency of the embassy.”
Read more: Taiwan representation opens in Vilnius
Žygimantas Povilionis, head of the Lithuanian parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, also said that the situation should not be exaggerated.
“I do not foresee any major consequences if in Vilnius there are fewer Chinese intelligence officers who keep an eye on anyone who tries to oppose their influence,” Povilionis told BNS on Sunday.
On social media, many Chinese have expressed anger at their government’s mild reaction to Lithuania’s actions, Bērziņa-Čerenkova said. But Lithuania is now at “the forefront of where things happen vis-à-vis China and Taiwan, so the Chinese want to be there and be the first ones to know”.
Previously, Lithuania also withdrew from the 17+1 format of Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries. No other states followed suit, but the Baltic neighbours are considering sending lower-ranking officials to these summits.
There are also calls to rename dozens of Taipei representations around the world, incorporating the word ‘Taiwan’.
“Beijing feels it needs to react, because it is afraid that Lithuania will start a domino effect, and other countries may follow in renaming Taipei economic and cultural offices,” Ivana Karásková, a China Research Fellow at the Association for International Affairs, told LRT.lt.
Western countries’ relations with Taiwan are already changing. Delegations from the European Parliament and other countries have recently visited Taipei, while Taiwanese politicians and businesspeople travelled to Central and Eastern Europe.
According to Bērziņa-Čerenkova, other countries might also try to expand their relations with Taiwan.
“There is a momentum now, and states feel that. Lithuania has drawn a lot of attention to itself from China, so other countries don’t have to speak up as much, but they can still pursue relations with Taiwan in Lithuania’s shadow,” she said.
China's threats that Lithuania will face economic consequences also have little basis.
“A possibility of economic sanctions is not likely due to the limited trade exchange between the countries and the fact that Lithuania is shielded from sanctions thanks to its EU membership,” Karásková said.
The Chinese also hope that different attitudes towards China in Europe will divide the allies. But this is not likely to happen, experts say.
“Rhetorically, the Chinese are very assertive in attacking the countries that they do not agree with, […] but they always look for ways to deescalate behind closed doors,” Bērziņa-Čerenkova said.