China has recalled its ambassador to Lithuania in protest against the Baltic nation’s plan to establish a representative office of self-governed Taiwan.
The Chinese foreign ministry on Tuesday denounced the decision as “severely undermining China’s sovereignty” and demanded that the Lithuanian government recall its ambassador.
“We urge the Lithuanian side to immediately rectify its wrong decision, take concrete measures to undo the damage, and not to move further down the wrong path,” the ministry said on its website.
China claims Taiwan as its territory and threatens to invade it if Taipei refuses to submit to Beijing’s control indefinitely.
The recall comes amid an escalating diplomatic spat between the two nations after Vilnius established itself as the main China critic in the EU.
In May, Lithuania became the first central and eastern European country to withdraw from China’s 17+1 meeting format with the region, arguing the partnership had not lived up to its promise and proved divisive for the EU.
Taiwan and Lithuania agreed last month to open representative offices in each others’ capitals, a level below official diplomatic representation but still a marked step up in ties.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry has said that its office would be called “Taiwanese Representative Office”, the first in Europe to include the name Taiwan rather than “Taipei”.
China demands that governments deny Taipei any treatment suggesting sovereignty. Beijing therefore opposes any use of Taiwan’s official moniker, Republic of China, or its geographic name Taiwan, which it sees as an attempt by Taipei to pursue de jure independence.
Under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has strengthened its assertion of ownership over Taiwan. The island of nearly 24m people has been governed independently since 1949 when the nationalist Kuomintang fled there after the Communists won China’s civil war.
Lithuania’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday that while it regretted the decision to recall the ambassador and respected the principle of “one China” it was “determined to pursue mutually beneficial ties with Taiwan”.
The diplomatic rift comes as public opinion in several central and eastern European nations is turning more negative towards China.
According to a Pew survey conducted in 2019, 45 per cent of Lithuanians viewed China favourably, still on the positive end of perceptions in European countries but a marked deterioration from the 52 per cent in 2011.
The Baltic country’s parliament has also called Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang “genocide” and banned Huawei from its 5G network.
Lithuania and the other Baltic countries have been strong supporters of democracy and dissidents after enduring almost a half century of illegal annexation by the Soviet Union.
Last month, Lithuania donated 20,000 doses of AstraZeneca/Oxford’s Covid-19 vaccine to Taiwan. Taipei responded with emotional gestures of gratitude.
Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, tweeted: “We’re oceans apart, but couldn’t be closer at heart.”