Text by J.W.E. Scott
One of the few positive spins regarding the Ukrainian conflict has been, at least in theory,
how united most of Europe’s major powers have been towards the Russian aggressor. While
news has focussed on diplomatic responses and the difficulty in forming a real united front
for Ukraine, the conflict has actually masked an entirely different set of events transpiring in
Eastern Europe towards another superpower aggressor.
In the summer of 2021, Lithuania became a rare country in that it de facto recognised the
statehood of Taiwan via the construction of a Taiwanese embassy in Vilnius. This is so rare,
in fact, that Lithuania is the first country in Europe to do such a thing in two decades. Most
countries refrain from recognising the sovereignty of Taiwan due to the political and financial
reprisals threatened by the Chinese Communist Party towards states who take such action.
Lithuania was no exception to this. When the embassy was officially opened in November
last year, China immediately pushed illegal economic sanctions onto the Baltic state, recalled
their ambassador, and made a stink of the situation. A partnership with Taiwan, beneficial not
least for the supply of tech goods, haw always been on the agenda of the new Lithuanian
government fronted by Ingrida Šimonytė when it was elected in 2020. In spite of an initial
wobble by president Gitanas Nausėda when he attempted to weasel himself back into China’s
good books, the move has not been halted. If the now-tense situation between the foreign
office and the president can survive, then perhaps so can this new relationship between
Lithuania and Taiwan.
I don’t see how we have broken any diplomatic rules. Chinese sensitivity on
those issues is a problem for China.
– Former Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius
Taiwan, taking advantage of the situation, promised to help Lithuania, whose imports from
China are a low 2% (compared, for example, to 12% for Finland), with economic support
projects substituting for lost Chinese investment. At the beginning of 2022, the European
Commission did not kowtow to the bullying, but instead made a case at the World Trade
Organisation against China for using such targeted methods of sanctions against Lithuania,
which go against international trading rules.
While in February, China went ahead with ceasing its Lithuanian imports, there was a whole
new “bad precedent” on the European continent of nations being more willing to stand up to a
country so used to getting its way. Slovakia and the Czech Republic have also publicly shown
new and cosier ties with Taiwanese officials, and a continuing move of this kind from within
the developed European continent (most current Taiwanese recognisers are microstates or in
South America) could have powerful knock-on effects for the geopolitical situation around
Europe, as well as its relationships overseas.
Taiwan has done its utmost to take advantage of the situation publicly, buying up masses of
goods that were now being blocked from entering China. They bought literal boatloads of
Lithuanian rum in a gesture of goodwill, and invested $200 million towards Lithuania’s
future public projects. Lithuania and its tiny portion of people in Taiwan have become very
popular overnight, with the country’s alcohol selection now all the fashion.
The Taiwanese representatives in Lithuania have been loud and constant in their calls against
authoritarianism and encroachment by the Chinese Communist Party, linking themselves to
cause groups in Ukraine, the Chinese Uighur population currently being forced into
concentration camps, and in the forsaken state of Hong Kong. Through their Twitter feed and other actions, they have done their best to draw attention to themselves, as well as attract
support for the Lithuanian government who have harboured them. In the end, it seems
Lithuania is continuing down this path that it has started upon. The government have asked to
have their own embassy in Taiwan, completing the deal that the last few months of actions
have led towards.
The WTO investigation will likely take years to solve, but it is more of a symbolic victory for
Lithuania and Taiwan than it is a tangible one. Both states are likely hoping, with the current
goodwill from other EU member states, that more countries will at the very least stand up to
the bullying actions of China’s trade policies. As with the Ukrainian invasion, there has been
a lot of unexpected rallying between Europe’s nations in and out of the Union to stand up to
the aggressive actions of other countries. Whether this defence lasts is another matter
If European companies pull out of Lithuania because of this Chinese coercion,
then Beijing will have won and the lesson it will draw from this is that it can
pressure European countries to tow its red lines.
-Noah Barkin, managing editor for Rhodium and expert on Europe-China relations.