by Amber Wang

Taiwan on Tuesday announced it will set up an office in Lithuania using its colloquial name in a significant diplomatic departure that sparked condemnation from China.

Taiwan’s first diplomatic outpost in Europe in 18 years will be called the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania, not the Taipei Office.

Lithuanian flag. Photo: MrTinDC via Flickr CC2.0.

The self-ruled democracy of some 23 million people, known officially as the Republic of China, is only recognised as a country by 15 other nations.  

Taiwan’s foreign minister Joseph Wu called the move “very significant”.

“Lithuania is a good partner for Taiwan who shares the same values for freedom and democracy,” Wu said at a virtual briefing, adding both are on the “strategic frontline of defending democratic systems”.

The Lithuanian foreign ministry said it planned to open a trade office in Taipei this autumn.

“Lithuania is interested in expanding its cooperation with Taiwan in various fields, laying particular emphasis on the development of economic relations and cultural exchanges,” the ministry said in a statement.

Beijing claims Taiwan and has vowed to one day retake it — by force if needed. It tries to keep Taipei isolated on the world stage and balks at any official use of the word “Taiwan” lest it lend the island a sense of international legitimacy.

Beijing’s office handling Taiwan affairs said it was opposed to any countries having diplomatic relations with “the Chinese Taiwan region” and described the creation of the Lithuania office as a “farce”.

People take part in a human chain protest in support of the Hong Kong Way, a recreation of a pro-democracy “Baltic Way” protest against Soviet rule three decades ago, in Vilnius, Lithuania on August 23, 2019. Photo: Petras Malukas.

“We urge Lithuania to strictly abide by the One China Principle and to not send the wrong signal to ‘Taiwanese independence’ forces,” spokesman Zhu Fenglian said.

Diplomatic dances

The opening of the Vilnius office is the latest sign that some Baltic and central European countries are seeking closer relations with Taiwan, even if that angers China.

In May, Lithuania announced it was quitting China’s 17+1 cooperation forum with central and eastern European states, calling it “divisive”.

It has since pledged to donate 20,000 coronavirus vaccines to Taiwan and open its own representative office on the island.

Last week, Slovakia also announced it was donating 10,000 vaccines to Taiwan, a gesture of thanks for 700,000 masks Taipei sent the central European nation at the start of the pandemic.

Politicians in the Czech Republic have also pushed for closer ties with Taiwan.

In 2019, Prague cancelled a sister-city agreement with Beijing and signed one with Taipei, while a high-profile visit to Taiwan last year by Czech senate leader Milos Vystrcil infuriated China.

Beijing remains a major trade and diplomatic ally to many other nations in the region, as well as a valuable source of coronavirus vaccines.

2017 New Year flag-raising ceremony in front of the Presidential Office Building in Taiwan. Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office.

China cut official contacts with Taiwan and ramped up diplomatic pressure after the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen. 

Tsai, who won a landslide reelection last year, rejects Beijing’s stance that the island is part of “one China” and instead views Taiwan as a de facto sovereign state.

Beijing has poached seven of Taipei’s diplomatic allies since 2016 and kept it frozen out of international bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO).

Taiwan maintains de facto diplomatic relations with dozens of nations through its representative offices.

Last year, Taiwan opened reciprocal offices with Somaliland. That office also used the word “Taiwan” but, unlike Lithuania, Somaliland is not recognised as a sovereign state by most nations.

It also has no official diplomatic relations with Beijing. 

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