China downgrades relations with Lithuania over dispute over Taiwan’s “embassy”

China lowered its diplomatic relations with Lithuania below the level of ambassadors on Sunday in response to the Baltic state allowing Taiwan, the democratic island that Beijing claims as part of its territory, to open a representative office.

China had earlier expelled the Lithuanian ambassador, reflecting its extreme sensitivity about the status of Taiwan, which Beijing says has no right to conduct foreign affairs. China also withdrew its ambassador from Lithuania.

The Foreign Ministry said relations would be reduced to the level of the charge d’affaires, who is the embassy’s second official.

Lithuania’s move reflects a growing interest among governments in expanding ties with Taiwan, a major trader and hub of the high-tech industry, at a time when Beijing has upset its neighbors and Western governments with an increasingly assertive foreign and military policy.

Taiwan and the mainland have been governed separately since 1949 following a civil war.

The Foreign Ministry accused Lithuania of “undermining China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”. She called on the Lithuanian government to “immediately correct the errors.”

Beijing refuses to establish formal relations with governments that recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state. It persuaded all but 15 countries, mostly small and poor in Africa and Latin America, to shift recognition to the mainland.

Several governments, including the United States and Japan, have formal diplomatic relations with Beijing while maintaining extensive trade relations with Taiwan. Many maintain ties with the island’s democratically elected government through trade offices that act as unofficial embassies.

Lithuania broke with diplomatic customs by agreeing that the Taiwanese office in Vilnius would bear the name Taiwan instead of Chinese Taipei, a term used by other countries to avoid offending Beijing.

Lithuania said earlier that it plans to open its own representative office in Taiwan.

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