“It’s ridiculous when a mayfly shakes a tree.” So wrote Han Yu, the Tang Dynasty poet, about critics of Zhang Ji, a friend and fellow poet. He wanted to highlight the folly of those who belittle others, despite being inferior themselves.
The same line was deployed again this week by a netizen to describe Lithuania’s decision to allow Taiwan to set up a representative office in its capital. At issue is the highly contentious matter of the name of the agency concerned: the Taiwan Representative Office, rather than the Taipei Representative Office, as it is labelled in many other countries.
The semantics are important to the combatants in the row: as a city name, Taipei lacks the fuller connotations of mentions of Taiwan, the island’s title.
Lithuania’s foreign ministry argues that the styling still respects the One-China Policy (the diplomatic term for Beijing’s immovable formula that there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of it). However, the argument has cut little ice with President Xi Jinping and his political circle. On August 10, his government announced the recall of its ambassador from Vilnius and demanded the next day that Lithuania withdraw its top diplomat from Beijing.
The state-run Global Times took a typically punchy view of events, with its editor-in-chief Hu Xijin slamming Lithuania as a “crazy, tiny country full of geopolitical fears”. In a scathing editorial Hu concluded that Vilnius was a “US running dog,” which “barks most fiercely” at America’s strategic rivals in exchange for its protection.
Just how much protection would the ‘world’s policeman’ really provide to Lithuania or Taiwan, though? This week Hu was back in action, tweeting that “after the fall of the Kabul regime, the Taiwanese authorities must be trembling. Don’t look to the US to protect them” (for more, see Talking Point).
Lithuania’s size was another recurring theme in the Chinese press commentary. As a rather bemused Guancha noted: “Why did such a small country challenge the core interests of the world’s second largest economy and a permanent member of the UN Security Council? Why play the Taiwan card when Lithuania is far away and cooperation with China would benefit both sides?”
The explanation, it believes, is that Lithuania is “diplomatically inexperienced” because it only regained its status as a sovereign state after gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.
Liu Zoukui, from the Institute of European Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, added that Lithuania is on the geographical frontline of the confrontation between Russia and the West. That makes it “willing to be a pawn in US strategy” in return for protection against a larger neighbour with which it has experienced a very difficult past.
Guancha agrees, citing Lithuania’s reliance on NATO for its security. It also described the EU’s standpoint on the row as “intriguing”, noting how some EU officials have emphasised that it’s a bilateral issue between China and Lithuania, while others are concerned that deteriorating relations between China and a EU member will inevitably affect China-EU relations as a whole.
It all “leaves quite a threatening taste in the mouth”, the newspaper concludes.
A few days before he was recalled from Vilnius, China’s ambassador Shen Zhifei penned an article for the Baltic state’s media explaining how Lithuanians don’t have “a clear understanding of the Taiwan issue” and highlighting that “peaceful reunion is the common aspiration of the people on both sides of the Straits” and “an unstoppable historical trend”.
But over in Taiwan, the Taipei Times was busier noting how Lithuania and Taiwan have much in common as “kindred spirits” living on the “edge of two hegemonic neighbours”.
It also quoted a recent tweet from Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, who announced the donation of 20,000 Covid-19 vaccines to Taiwan in June with the comment that“freedom- loving people should look out for each other”.
What might happen next in the row? Will Lithuania go a step further and formally recognise Taiwan or will the two ambassadors return to their postings, as Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda told the Financial Times this week?
The Global Times savoured the possibilities of a more belligerent line, arguing that China and Russia should pair up in administering a heavy blow to “a country that has lost its mind”. It didn’t identify what format this punishment should take, although the Chinese are always sensitive to any activity perceived to undermine their sovereign claims to Taiwan.
The flow – in terms of diplomatic recognitions – has generally been in the other direction since 1971, when the United Nations removed the Republic of China (Taiwan) as China’s official representative at the global body in favour of the People’s Republic. By 2019, only 15 out of 193 UN members still maintained full diplomatic relations with Taipei, after Kiribati and the Solomon Islands became the latest defectors to Beijing.
Could other nations follow Lithuania’s lead in pushing back harder against Chinese directives on how relations with Taiwan should be governed? One of the most incendiary decisions could come from the US itself. In mid-July Congress passed the bipartisan EAGLE Act and one of its provisions relates to changing the name of the currently styled Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, Washington’s current ‘presence’ in Taiwan.
Back in eastern and central Europe, an opinion piece by Josh Stenberg published by Australia’s Lowy Institute this month claims that some countries are more disposed towards friendship with Taiwan because of their “memories of life under authoritarianism”. In a visit to Taiwan last September the president of the Czech Senate even addressed its parliament by saying “ I am Taiwanese,” echoing John F Kennedy’s famous declaration of solidarity “Ich bin ein Berliner.” This summer, the Czech government donated 30,000 vaccines to Taiwan too.
Germany’s Deutsche Welle (DW) believes that the Baltic state Estonia may soon be a target of Beijing’s displeasure as well, after it was one of six countries to choose not to send a head of state to February’s 17+1 summit of CEE (central and eastern European) countries, plus China. The others were Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia. Lithuania then pulled out of China’s diplomatic initiative in the region permanently in May.
Stenberg also argues that the Chinese have a harder time rebuking the smaller Eastern European states for perceived indiscretions, because they can’t roll out the accusations of a history of imperial exploitation more normally deployed against other nations. But Beijing is probably frustrated that its efforts to build economic ties with CEE countries haven’t been as successful as they hoped. In part that might be down to disappointment about the limits of China’s investment in the region. The Central and Eastern European Centre for Asian Studies calculates that CEE countries received just $10 billion of the $129 billion in Chinese capital flowing into Europe between 2000 and 2019, for instance.
In the meantime there has been some support for the Lithuanian stance from other nations, albeit those that would probably want to avoid a similar row with the Chinese themselves. Lithuania’s foreign minister received a phone call from US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who told him that the US was “resolute in our solidarity” with its NATO ally.
Over in the UK the press favours plucky underdogs as well, with The Times arguing that the rest of the EU has something to learn from Vilnius, which has shown that it’s unafraid to lose favour in Beijing or Moscow.
China’s response to the row has mostly been to make its anger public – though some media have suggested a shutdown of direct rail freight between the two countries could be a more practical ‘punishment’. However, bilateral trade between the two is low (Lithuania’s exports to China totalled $358 million in 2020, while imports were $1.38 billion). This may have emboldened Lithuania’s president to step up the rhetoric, with Nauseda telling the Financial Times that Lithuania’s complicated history has inculcated democratic values that “aren’t very much liked by our neighbours, or some other countries”. He had no intention of backing down to Beijing, he added. As a “sovereign and independent country, Lithuania is free to decide which countries or territories it develops economic and cultural relations with,” he concluded, in comments that bear resemblance to some of the statements often heard in Beijing.
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