Lithuania Sees a Kindred Spirit in Taiwan

29/3/2021

Grand Duke Gediminas’ Tower in Vilnius, Lithuania, a symbol of the country’s independence

Lithuania is small, but far from insignificant. 30 years ago, it was the first republic to break away from the former Soviet Union, and helped hasten its collapse. Today, it continues to defy great powers – including China.

 

After winning the general election in 2020, the new Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė talked about “a diplomacy of values,” and pledged her country’s support for “those who fight for freedom, from Belarus to Taiwan.” Whilst her support for Belarus, Lithuania’s buffer between it and Russia, was expected, her willingness to court China’s furore over Taiwan was much more surprising.

 

Since then, Lithuania has announced it would open a trade office in Taipei. (Such offices are widely considered de facto embassies.) Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis criticized China’s 17+1 forum (where China promotes commerce with Central and Eastern European nations) as something that has brought Lithuania “almost no benefits,” and the country is considering leaving the forum. Lithuania then started a Lithuania-Taiwan forum, a channel for cultural exchange, where Lithuanians can also support democracy, human rights, and self-determination in Taiwan.

 

The small Baltic nation’s interest in democracy in East Asia goes back to the Hong Kong protests in 2019. When some citizens voiced their support for Hong Kong in the streets of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, they were met with counter protesters from the small Chinese expatriate population – including the ambassador himself. Lithuania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reprimanded the ambassador for acting “against constitutionally guaranteed democratic freedoms.” On the same day, Hong Kongers emulated the “Baltic way,” forming a giant human chain to protest against Chinese oppression, just as the people of Baltic states did to protest Soviet oppression back in 1989.

Hong Kongers emulating the “Baltic way” in 2019 (Picture Credit: Studio Incendo)

One of the people who organized the pro-Hong Kong protest is Dr Mantas Adomėnas, who at the time was a member of the Seimas, Lithuania’s parliament, and is now Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs. “Taiwan should be celebrated for its commitment to democracy,” he said, “they are a beacon of liberty in East Asia. Democracy and Chinese civilization are perfectly compatible, old traditions and cutting edge innovation walk together.” He also praised the way Taiwan handled COVID and called it “a country we love to love.” It’s not hard to see why – the similarities between Lithuania and Taiwan are obvious.

 

Both countries have a history of opposing a much more powerful Communist state, and both today are the targets of an aggressive dictatorship. Just as Lithuania has been continuously harassed by Russia under Vladimir Putin, which seems possessive of its former satellite state, Taiwan has been continuously harassed by China, which considers it part of its territory.

Both Lithuania and Taiwan have a history of opposing a much more powerful Communist state, and both today are the targets of an aggressive dictatorship.

Because of this, both countries have had to protect themselves. Russia has done as much to try to misinform the Lithuanians as China has to try to influence and intimidate the Taiwanese. Lithuania answered Putin’s online trolling armies with a digital army of “elves” aimed at countering Russian messages. Fearing Russia would cut off supplies of natural gas to Lithuania like it did to Ukraine, Lithuania developed an offshore gas terminal in its sole harbor town. “Taiwanese live under the threat of a military power and they are being very agile, reinventing themselves constantly, this is something other countries can learn from them,” Dr Adomėnas said. Lithuania may not be in as much danger as Taiwan – Lithuania is a NATO and EU member, and Russia is not as openly aggressive towards Lithuania as China is towards the island – but it can understand Taiwan’s burden.

 

There is also the reliance on technology. When it regained its independence in 1990, Lithuania was in not much better a position than Taiwan was at the end of the Chinese Civil War. Yet it managed to climb the ladder of European economies by investing in education and science. The country was dubbed a “Baltic Tiger,” and compared to the once rapidly-growing Asian Tiger economies, which included Taiwan. Today, of the three Baltic states, Lithuania has the largest population and the biggest economy. “Lithuania relies a lot on its exports,” said Aušrinė Armonaitė, Minister of Trade and Innovation, whose ministry is in charge of the future trade office with Taiwan, “and we need to expand in Southeast Asia. Taiwan is also a priority because of its expertise in high-tech.” Lithuania’s economy is strong, and, unlike some countries that flirt with recognizing Taiwan diplomatically to extract economic goodies out of it, Lithuania does not need to engage in such checkbook diplomacy, and supports Taiwan chiefly out of principle.

 

And, unlike some other countries, which set up trade offices with Taiwan, only to cancel them shortly after under Chinese pressure, like Guyana, Lithuania is unlikely to reverse itself. “We are not afraid, we are prepared for repercussions and our decision will not change,” said Dr Adomėnas, “the sooner China accepts it the sooner we can resume dealing with China as well. I do not believe they would intimidate us anyway, it would not be in their interest, I think they saw their lack of soft power and reliance on intimidation is not working, at least not in Europe.”

Dr Mantas Adomenas, Lithuania’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs

Such a strong stance has become rare in an age where everyone seems eager to cave in to Chinese presure for a few renminbis. But aside from being robust, Lithuania’s economy is not dependent on China – the Chinese market accounts for less than 1% of exports, and China does not have the leverage to make Lithuania do its bidding.

The Chinese market accounts for less than 1% of exports, and China does not have the leverage to make Lithuania do its bidding.

Of course, Lithuania is unlikely to save Taiwan alone even if it wanted to. But its willingness to say “no” to China may be part of a growing trend in Europe. Last year, the Czech Republic sent a delegation of senators and mayors to Taiwan. When China, predictably, responded with anger and threats, Pavel Novotny, the mayor of a district in Prague described the Chinese foreign ministry as behaving like “unmannered rude clowns.” Last week, the Chinese ambassador to France was rebuffed after he warned French lawmakers against meeting Taiwanese officials during an upcoming trip to the island. Likewise, when China banned a German member of the European Parliament who criticized its abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang from visiting China earlier this week, he replied that he could still visit Taiwan.

 

Meanwhile, Taiwan remains silent. Aware that its words can trigger a dangerous response, it merely “welcomes Lithuania’s interest.” Taiwan also knows that China’s vociferous anger only strengthens its position: the more Beijing rails against it, the closer countries like Lithuania will draw to it.

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