Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 30 January 2022

 Lithuania stood with Taiwan against China. Europe and the U.S. should stand with Lithuania.

Taiwanese and Lithuanian flags are displayed at the Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius on Jan. 20. (Janis Laizans/Reuters, File)
Opinion by the Editorial Board
January 30 at 2:22 am Taiwan Time
At a time when democracy is in global retreat and instability threatens even long-established systems — including that of the United States — there is much perspective to be gained from the world’s newest democracies. Cherishing democracy that much more for having achieved it after long struggle, they are sometimes willing to take risks for the cause others might not.
Consider the recent conduct of Lithuania, the tiny Baltic republic that gained independence and political freedom in 1991 after half a century of repressive Soviet rule. On Nov. 18, Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open a diplomatic office in its capital, Vilnius. Taiwan is recognized formally by only 14 nations. Others have full diplomatic relations exclusively with the much larger and more powerful country that claims Taiwan as a wayward province: the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan has liaison offices in the United States and many European countries — they’re just like the one in Vilnius except for a single detail: Only the Vilnius mission uses the descriptor “Taiwanese Representative Office,” rather than mentioning only Taipei, the island’s capital.
Lithuania clearly sees something of itself, and its own history, in Taiwan — a small, embattled democracy abutting a huge communist empire with designs on its territory. That kindles solidarity. No doubt there’s economic self-interest involved as well: Lithuania and other new democracies in Eastern Europe have benefited comparatively little from trade with China, whereas Taiwan has offered Lithuania $1 billion in credits and investment, obviously as a reward for its political support.
An infuriated Beijing has retaliated against Vilnius with a de facto trade embargo. China also recalled its ambassador from Lithuania and took steps against the latter’s diplomats that caused them to pull out of Beijing. This is of a piece with previous Chinese measures against Canada and Australia — and, because Lithuania is a member of the European Union, China’s bullying of Lithuania is a test for that much larger entity, too.
The E.U. has so far held fairly firm, reminding China that it considers itself a single entity and trade restrictions against one of its 27 members as restrictions against them all. It has labeled Chinese pressure on Lithuania a violation of international trade law and asked the World Trade Organization to look into the matter. Both Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed support for Lithuania at a joint news conference Jan. 5.
To be sure, China’s response was foreseeable. Lithuania’s own president, Gitanas Nauseda, has said that, while he supports opening the Taiwan office, he wasn’t consulted on the name and that it was “a mistake” by his cabinet — which they should “fix.” There may be some way for Taiwan and Lithuania to finesse the issue without rewarding Chinese pressure either in perception or reality.
The main problem, though, is China’s position and its bullying of two much smaller and weaker nations. Whatever else happens, Lithuania should not reverse its opening to Taiwan, which the United States, correctly, supported. Far better for Lithuania, and for its allies on both sides of the Atlantic, to err on the side of democratic solidarity.

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