Taiwan will set up its first office in Europe using the name “Taiwan,” drawing a rebuke from China and praise from the U.S. as the island democracy seeks to strengthen its diplomatic presence around the globe in the face of pressure from Beijing.
The government in Taipei will open its office in the eastern European Union state of Lithuania, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said in a briefing Tuesday. Taiwan’s other diplomatic outposts on the continent are under the name of “Taipei.”
“Lithuania has firmly believed in universal values such as democracy, freedom and human rights, and is a like-mined partner of Taiwan,” Wu said. “Taiwan and Lithuania are both at the strategic front line to safeguard democratic and free regimes.”
Lithuania, a country of 2.8 million people that borders Russia, has already backed Taiwan in other areas. It supported its attempt to participate in the World Health Organization’s annual policy-setting summit at the World Health Assembly, Wu said, an issue that became a geopolitical controversy between major powers as the island successfully fought the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Baltic nation has had increasingly fraught relations with China, which it enraged in March by announcing its own office in Taiwan. It has also committed to donating COVID-19 vaccines to the government in Taipei, and has stepped back from a Chinese group set up to engage Eastern European countries.
The latest development is a setback for Beijing, which has sought for years to divide the 27-member EU through its overtures to the bloc’s ex-communist countries. China has faced more pushback from some of those nations lately as the U.S. and allies criticize Beijing over issues ranging from its handling of information on COVID-19 to its crackdown on Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang and democracy activists in Hong Kong.
Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office called the Lithuania office an attempt at seeking independence, and it urged the Baltic nation to adhere to the one-China principle.
“China firmly opposes any formal relations between other countries with Taiwan and opposes the establishment of representative offices in other countries,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a briefing Tuesday in Beijing. “And we say this firmly to Taiwan authority: Any attempt to create Taiwan independence or create ‘One China, One Taiwan’ in the international community will only fail.”
Lithuania has been displaying a more assertive foreign policy of late — providing refuge to opposition figures from neighboring Belarus after a violent crackdown there, and calling for tougher action against the Kremlin for imprisoning its rivals.
Engaging with parts of Asia beyond China has been part of the government’s plan since it took power in December, according to Deputy Foreign Minister Mantas Adomenas, who sees his country’s actions as in line with global opinion and part of efforts to ensure that the “world order” is maintained.
“I think that our decisions do represent the international political consensus among the nations of the free world,” Adomenas said Tuesday by phone.
While he hopes relations with China will remain civil, he said there’s “no reason” not to extend a program of humanitarian visas currently available to dissidents fleeing Belarus and Russia to people seeking to leave Hong Kong in the coming months.
The American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy, issued a statement supporting the move by President Tsai Ing-wen’s government.
“All countries should be free to pursue closer ties and greater cooperation with Taiwan, a leading democracy, a major economy, and a force for good in the world,” the American Institute in Taiwan said in a statement. “The U.S. remains committed to supporting Taiwan in a manner consistent with the U.S. ‘One China’ policy as Taiwan strengthens its international partnerships and works to address global challenges, including COVID-19, investment screening, and supply chain resilience.”
The U.S.’s closer ties with Taiwan in recent years have been a growing source of tension with China, which claims the islands and has threatened to use force to seize them if necessary. The strained relationship has even impacted Taiwan’s ability to procure vaccines even after Tsai’s government successfully kept the virus at bay since the pandemic began.
Earlier this month, Chinese president Xi Jinping spoke with France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel in a bid to repair ties. That was followed by a meeting between Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Over the last few years, Beijing has also slowly squeezed Taipei’s few remaining diplomatic allies, particularly smaller island states in the South Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean. Last summer, Taiwan set up a similar representative office to the one it is opening in Lithuania in the territory of the unrecognized government of Somaliland in a bid to bolster its dwindling number of allies.
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