Lithuania and Taiwan have recently agreed to set up representative offices in in their respective countries. This could potentially be a boost to Taiwan’s international recognition, especially if Lithuania decides to formally recognize the geographically challenged east Asian nation.
Taiwan has long fought for greater international recognition, though they must do so carefully for fear of violent reprisals by China. While the country is, generally speaking, quite well off, it doesn’t command the massive economy or market that China does. Such a power imbalance makes obtaining and retaining diplomatic allies extremely tough. In one week in 2019 alone, Taiwan lost two, of their then 17, diplomatic allies. This was a huge blow to many in Taiwan. However, recently there has been renewed hope.
Much of this is due to the international recognition that Taiwan has received over its pandemic response. While of course not perfect, the island had about a year without local cases. After missteps, and perhaps a bit of hubris, there was an explosion in cases, jumping to hundreds a day. Many thought that all the good will and attention they have garnered over this period was gone, and it was, for a while. However, Taiwan quickly got cases under control and has, more or less, kept cases down in the low double digits (recently mostly in the single digits), once again bringing praise for the country’s handling of covid. Another move by Taiwan has also helped to bolster its international recognition during the global pandemic, masks.
Taiwan has donated over 50 million masks around the globe since the pandemic began. This is partially because Taiwan already produces a lot of masks normally, and after cases started coming out of Wuhan, they quickly closed borders and ramped up production to more than ten fold of pre-covid levels. This mask surplus gave them a route to diplomacy, resulting in many nations around the world thanking Taiwan for their donations on the world stage. Lithuania is an example of this “mask diplomacy in action.
In 2020, Taiwan donated 100,000 masks to Lithuania. This of course boosted good will between the two countries. Lithuania, in turn, donated 20,000 Astra Zeneca vaccines to Taiwan this year, as a thank you for all the masks. This subsequently led to a stronger bond between the two countries, and of course, the anger of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Though Lithuania was already aggravating Beijing before this with their criticism of China’s gross human rights violations.
One of the first of these acts was when the country criticized the Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong at the UN. Later the Seimas, Lithuania’s unicameral parliament, voted through a resolution that called for China to end the National Security Law (NSL) in Hong Kong, and recognized the ongoing genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang (East Turkestan). This of course really upset the Chinese government, as facts often do. Lithuania and Taiwan’s decision to establish representative offices is of course no different.
The decision was announced on July 20 by Joseph Wu (吳釗燮), Taiwan’s foreign minister. Soon following this announcement China declared that it was pulling its ambassador out of the small Baltic state and has demanded Lithuania likewise remove its envoy from China immediately. The Chinese Foreign ministry stated, “We urge the Lithuanian side to immediately rectify its wrong decision, take concrete measures to undo the damage, and not to move further down the wrong path.” However it seems that China may be the one “heading down the wrong path.”
Beijing’s increasing belligerency over perceived slights, such as this case where Taiwan is simply using the name everyone knows it as, along with its refusal to budge on any of their flagrant human rights violations, may be pushing the international community away. The spokeswoman for the European External Action Service, Nabila Massrali, commented that acts on EU states, such as this case with Lithuania, “inevitably have an impact on overall EU-China relations.” Also stating, “We regret the Chinese action, and are following developments closely.” We will have to wait and see if anything actually materializes, but it does seem some pressure is mounting against the growingly isolated nation.
Another question we still don’t know the answer to is whether more will follow Lithuania’s lead and expand relations with and recognition of Taiwan. Though if we look to history, it seems that Lithuania may give possible insight on how an increase of nations recognizing Taiwan could come to fruition.
Lithuania, like Taiwan, was long controlled by other powers. The people continually struggled for their independence, they obtained this freedom at various times throughout history, often to be once again dominated by a larger, more powerful state, constantly being passed between conquerors. For example, after their brief stint of independence, starting in 1918, they were absorbed by Germany, then after WWII, handed off to the Soviets. As the fall of the Soviet Union approached, it was clear that Lithuanians still fiercely desired autonomy. In fact, Lithuania was the first nation to declare independence from the Soviet union in April 1990. This of course did not come without a fight. Soviet troops created a blockade of the nation’s ports, eventually even sending armed soldiers to take the capital by force. However, unarmed citizens flooded Vilnius, and fought and died to retain their freedom at during this and other attempted coups by outside agitators. As a small, young state, in terms of its newly found independence, it was hard to find allies, especially with such a big enemy in the Soviet Union (Taiwanese can empathize with this). Thankfully however, one quickly appeared.
Thirty years ago this year, Iceland made the decision to recognize Lithuania when no one else would. Many countries in Europe feared reprisals from the Soviet Union, thus they were hesitant to recognize Lithuania. Given Iceland’s distance, both geographically and economically, from the Soviets, they decided to recognize the small Baltic nation. It is likely that they also felt safer from military reprisals not just because of their physical distance from and lower overall trade with the Soviet Union, but also because they were a member of NATO and the US had a military presence on the island nation at the time. So could Lithuania become a similar force for the recognition of Taiwan?
Lithuania’s current position shares many similarities with where Iceland was in the 1990s in relation to Taiwan. Currently they are not particularly close trading partners with Beijing, this is likely to be exacerbated as China continues to grow more antagonistic and turns inward. This is compounded by the fact that many are contemplating diversifying supply lines, as the current covid pandemic has shown us putting all one’s eggs in the China basket can have devastating consequences. This could present an opportunity for greater recognition of Taiwan by the Baltic country and potentially lead to a domino effect where more and more countries realize that Taiwan is a much more stable and friendly ally than the CCP. Though to take this step they will have to put morality over mammon, because Taiwan’s local market is much smaller than China’s.
There are some important differences when looking at Iceland’s situation in the early 1990s and Lithuania’s today that must be kept in mind however. Lithuania is in close proximity and relies more heavily on Russia, one of China’s closest allies. China has already begun to push Russia to team up with them to “punish” Lithuania for daring to stand up to them. It is still to be seen whether Russia will take them up on their offer. Russia is the biggest buyer of Lithuanian exports with over 13% of their exports going to their close neighbor. If Russia chooses to work with Beijing this will make the decision to continue or expand relations with Taiwan much more daunting, though being a member of the EU and NATO could give them other options if their relationship with Russia falters, and offers them protection against violent reprisals.
There are still many unanswered questions about which direction these relationships will go. Many factors will determine what will happen between Lithuania and Taiwan. However, there is great potential that this could be the start of a long happy partnership, that could potentially lead to the increased recognition that Taiwan so desperately needs and deserves.