Lithuania is the latest European nation to tempt China's ire by reaching out to Taiwan. Image: Pixabay

PRAGUE – A spat between China and the small Baltic state Lithuania over the latter’s relations with Taiwan risks exacerbating Beijing’s already fraught ties in Europe.

A growing chorus of pro-Taipei politicians, mainly opposition figures from Europe’s typically less influential nations, are also forcing the European Union to reconsider its position within the China-Taiwan contest. 

Earlier this month, China recalled its ambassador to Lithuania and demanded it reciprocates the move in response to Vilnius’ move weeks ago to set up a new diplomatic office in Taiwan. 

As part of the new Lithuanian government’s pro-Taiwan policy, the Taipei government is also expanding its diplomatic mission in Vilnius, which will be the first office in Europe using the name “Taiwan,” whereas all other diplomatic outposts on the continent are under the name of “Taipei.”

Under a new government that took power in late 2020, Lithuania also left the 17+1 forum between China and 17 Central and Eastern European states earlier this year. 

EU foreign affairs spokeswoman Nabila Massrali said of the latest spat between Beijing and Lithuania: “We regret the Chinese action, and are following developments closely … We do not regard the opening of a representative office in or from Taiwan (as opposed to an embassy or consulate) as a breach of the EU’s One China policy.”

The United States government also chimed in. “We stand with our ally Lithuania and condemn the People’s Republic of China’s recent retaliatory actions recalling their ambassador in Vilnius and demanding Lithuania recall its ambassador in Beijing. The US supports our European partners as they develop ties with Taiwan,” Ned Price, the US State Department’s spokesman, tweeted this week. 

“It does not take rocket science to see through Lithuania’s perilous calculations: to show its loyalty to a Washington that is increasingly anti-China,” state-run Xinhua opined in an article published this week. 

The Lithuanian Embassy in Beijing on August 10, 2021. China demanded Lithuania recall its envoy to Beijing after Vilnius allowed Taiwan to set up an office under its own name in a move seen as provocative by the Chinese government. Photo: AFP / Jade Gao

Lithuania appears to be now ahead in a path cut by other European countries. Beijing threatened tough action after the president of the Czech Senate, Milos Vystrcil, led an 89-member delegation on a visit to Taipei last year.

The mayor of the Czech capital Prague, Zdenek Hřib, has pursued pro-Taiwan policies since 2017, including exchanging Prague’s sister-city relationship with Beijing for one with Taipei. 

Hrib and Vystrcil, both from opposition parties, have opposed Czech President Milos Zeman’s pro-China stances and his close ties to Chinese businesses. 

Greater numbers of European politicians are now calling on national governments and the regional bloc to explore greater relations with Taipei, an issue that has been relatively absent in regional discussions in previous years. 

But this risks worsening tensions with Beijing, which claims ownership of Taiwan under its “one China” policy. 

In 2019, a new caucus was formed in the European Parliament to lobby for pro-Taiwan policies, especially its participation in multilateral groups, such as the World Health Organization. 

The “Formosa Club” now includes more than 100 European Members of Parliament. Similar clubs exist within national parliaments in Europe. 

In May, the French Senate passed a resolution supporting Taiwan’s inclusion in international organizations, such as the World Trade Organization. 

There is also growing public support amongst Europeans for more open and convivial ties with Taiwan, even down to the seemingly trivial. 

During the Tokyo Olympic Games this month, the well-read Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport and France’s L’Équipe published their medals ranking with “Taiwan” and the Taiwanese flag, whereas most other European news agencies went with the International Olympics Committee-enforced “Chinese Taipei.”

Overlooked no longer

Up until the early 1990s, what is now the European Union traded more with Taiwan than with mainland China. 

However, for as long as European states and the US wanted to ignore the global implications of China’s rise and focus only on the positives of surging trade with China, Taiwan’s status as a democratic and liberal state was also overlooked. 

But since the EU and US have taken an increasingly hostile stance on China’s rise, beginning about 2017, and have sought to frame the rivalry with China in ideological terms, Taiwan’s role as the democratic-other has swelled in importance. 

Some analysts argue that Taiwan has perfected the “diplomacy of democracy.” Beginning in the 1990s, governments in Taipei projected an image of themselves as democratic and liberal, the opposite of Beijing’s communist rulers, to win support in the West.

Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu commented in July after announcing the new diplomatic outpost in Lithuania: “Taiwan and Lithuania are both at the strategic front line to safeguard democratic and free regimes.”

Czech Senate President Milos Vystrcil meets Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen in Taipei, Taiwan, on Sept 3, 2020. Photo: AFP via EyePress News

Because of this, supporting Taiwan has become a way for European politicians and governments, in a few cases like Lithuania, to exhibit their values-driven foreign agendas. It has also become a way for Europe’s liberals, especially those in opposition, to burnish their liberal-democratic credentials at home. 

In the Czech Republic, anti-China and pro-Taiwan positions are framed as defending the country’s traditional Westwards-looking foreign policy. 

In Lithuania, politicians have compared Taiwan’s threat of invasion from the Beijing government to their own past and allegedly present threat of conflict with Russia, making them natural partners against predatory superpowers. 

The likes of the Czech Republic and Lithuania have even donated Covid-19 vaccines to Taiwan.

Marie-Pierre Vedrenne, the vice-chair of the Parliament’s trade committee, commented in June: “We share democratic values, green objectives and we have a clear reciprocal economic interest to strengthen our ties [with Taiwan] … These are sufficient reasons to call for an urgent start of an impact assessment and a scoping exercise with our partner.”

That said, the European Commission, the EU’s executive, is hesitant on any action that would seemingly infringe upon the “One China” policy. 

In part, this is for simple economics. EU-Taiwan bilateral trade in goods was worth 51 billion euros (US$59.7 billion) in 2019, compared with EU-China trade of 561 billion euros.

In June, an “opinion” was passed in the European Parliament’s international trade committee that the Commission should forge ahead with an investment pact with Taiwan. 

The Commission has considered this since 2015 and in the past said it would have to wait until a similar investment agreement was made with China. 

Terms of the EU-China investment pact were agreed to last December, although the pact itself doesn’t appear likely to be ratified because of ongoing and intensifying disputes between Brussels and Beijing. 

EU-China relations have deteriorated considerably since early 2020, the result of pandemic-related issues as well as increased European comments on China’s human rights abuses.

The EU imposed sanctions on several Chinese officials in May over genocide in Xinjiang state. Beijing responded hours later with sanctions against EU officials and European think tanks. 

Yet smaller and typically less influential countries from the EU might soon have an oversized influence on regional policy. 

Taiwan Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu attends a press conference at the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the Czech delegation in Taipei City, Taiwan, on September 3, 2020. Photo: AFP / Ceng Shou Yi / NurPhoto

Dominika Remzova, of the University of London, has described the “Czech model” of relations with Taiwan as combining public diplomacy initiatives with renewed economic initiatives, which also allows for the diversification of supply chains away from China. 

In an essay published late last year, she argued that this “may be feasible in most” Central and Eastern European countries. 

One reason the Czech and Lithuanian politicians have risked Beijing’s fury over improved Taiwan relations is because their countries receive little investment from China. Their trade with China is also marginal.

By comparison, the Czech Republic was the third-largest recipient of FDI from Taiwan in the EU last year, trailing only Germany and Holland.

Because Europe’s larger and more influential states, namely Germany, are far more dependent on Chinese investment and trade, they are unlikely to be as bold in their missives to Taipei.

But in the long run, Taiwan’s increased visibility in Europe’s smaller states’ could be used as a springboard to gradual regionwide change. Work on an EU-Taiwan bilateral investment agreement would be a start, some analysts suggest. 

And the momentum, at least for now, appears to be ever better relations between Europe and Taiwan, which is riding the wave as a democratic icon in East Asia.