Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 4 March 2021



Lithuania Riles China With Taiwan Trade-Office Plan as Ties Sour

  • Vilnius also considering leaving Chinese-led East Europe forum
  • China opposes any official exchanges with Taiwan, other states

Lithuania is planning to open a trade office in Taiwan this year and is chewing over leaving a Chinese-led forum for eastern European states, complicating Beijing’s push to deepen its influence in the continent’s ex-communist sphere.

China’s government has sought for years to boost investment, political ties and other aspects of its relationship with the European Union by wooing the bloc’s eastern members. While some countries like Hungary have embraced that effort, others have bristled, shunning Chinese technology and deepening ties with Taiwan.

The ruling coalition in Lithuania, an EU member of 2.8 million bordering Russia, has made supporting “freedom fighters from Belarus to Taiwan” a pillar of its governing program. Now it aims to “strengthen and diversify economic diplomacy” in Asia, said Skaiste Barauskiene, a spokeswoman for the economy and innovation minister.

“One of the steps is to open a Lithuanian enterprise office in Taiwan by the end of the year,” she said Thursday.

The plan triggered a rebuke from China, whose Communist Party requires countries to accept Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic of China as a pre-condition for diplomatic ties. The issue has exacerbated tensions elsewhere too, with a planned trip to Taipei by a top Czech official triggering a dispute between Prague and Beijing last year.

“We are firmly against the mutual establishment of official agencies and official exchanges in all forms between the Taiwan region and countries having diplomatic relations with China, including Lithuania,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a briefing Thursday.

Other issues are grating as well. Last month, Lithuania barred a Chinese state-owned company from supplying its airports with luggage-scanning equipment over national security concerns.

Lithuania has also shown waning enthusiasm for the China and Central and Eastern European Countries forum -- more commonly referred to as the 17+1 -- which took shape in 2012 as a way for China to forge ties with eastern Europe.

Some European participants sent lower-level officials rather than presidents or prime ministers to this year’s meeting. Lithuania was among them, and its parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee has recommended exiting the format. Instead, the country said it favors a 27+1 that also includes the EU’s western members.

“Lithuania is interested in developing mutually beneficial bilateral relations with China, based on mutual respect for democratic values, human rights and freedoms,” the Foreign Ministry said. “The 17+1 format failed to meet our expectations and doesn’t correspond to the interests of the EU.”

— With assistance by Brendan Scott

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