Taiwan has opened a de facto embassy in Lithuania in a diplomatic penetration into the Chinese-claimed but self-governing island, prompting Beijing to express its anger and warn of the consequences.
Taipei announced Thursday that it has opened an official office in the Baltic state – its first in Europe in 18 years – in defiance of a pressure campaign from Beijing.
The new diplomatic post would end the euphemism “Taipei” office in Vilnius – a common reference to other Taiwanese diplomatic missions in Europe and the United States.
China considers Taiwan part of its territory and has threatened to annex it by force if necessary, which President Xi Jinping has called a “historic mission.”
Beijing has long pressured other countries to sever ties with Taiwan in order to maintain ties with China as part of the “one China” policy recognized by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. Only 15 countries in the world have diplomatic relations with the democratic autonomous island.
The opening of the office will “paint a new and promising course” for relations between it and Lithuania, Taiwan’s foreign ministry said late Thursday, highlighting the economic potential in the growing bilateral relationship.
“Taiwan will cherish and enhance this new friendship on the basis of our common values,” the ministry said.
China’s Foreign Ministry said the move was a “crude conclusion” in the country’s internal affairs, describing the decision as a “very outrageous act”.
“The Lithuanian side is responsible for all the consequences of this,” she added. “We call on the Lithuanian side to immediately correct its wrong decision.”
In August, China withdrew its ambassador to Vilnius after Taiwan announced that its office in the city would be called the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania.
It was understood that China’s aggressive response to Lithuania served as a warning shot to other European countries to dissuade them from taking similar actions.
Beijing’s anger also stems from Lithuania’s decision to open an embassy in Taipei at a later, yet unspecified date.
Last year’s general elections in Lithuania brought the center-right coalition to power. One of her central campaign slogans was “values-based foreign policy,” indicating strong support for democratic states.
Since then, Lithuania has tended to adopt a more hardline policy towards authoritarian states, such as China, Russia, and Belarus.
Lithuania was also disappointed that China defaulted on its investment promises as part of a “17+1” grouping with Central and Eastern Europe aimed at tackling the growing trade deficit and benefiting from China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects.
Then, the Baltic state decided to withdraw from “17 + 1” in May, calling on all EU members to withdraw.
Beijing has concerns that Lithuanian policies to suggest a more prominent diplomatic role for Taiwan in Europe would encourage a change in the status quo and break the consensus around the “one China” policy.
“Attempts to create a ‘one China, one Taiwan’ scene flagrantly violate the one-China principle…undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and flagrantly interfere in China’s internal affairs,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in a statement late Thursday night. .
Despite China’s threats of retaliation, doubts are growing about its ability to force Lithuania to change course.
Analysts say the low rate of Chinese investment and economic engagement with Lithuania was seen as a boon in Vilnius.
The recent shift in dialect in Lithuania also reflects the changing public sentiment in Europe on the issue of crossing the strait. In October, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu toured Europe and made an unprecedented visit to Brussels and held discussions with European lawmakers. The visit infuriated China and drew the usual Chinese threats with counter-reactions.