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 Baltic nation of Lithuania, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told 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 has supported the island’s 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 development is a setback for Beijing, which has wooed countries in the eastern part of the European Union for years in an attempt to divide the 27-member bloc. China has faced more pushback from some of those countries 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, a country of 2.8 million people that borders Russia, has been displaying a more assertive foreign policy of late—providing refuge to the opposition from neighboring Belarus after a violent crackdown there, and calling for tougher action against the Kremlin for imprisoning its rivals.
It has fraught relations with China, which it angered in March by announcing the Taiwan trade office. It’s also committed to donating Covid-19 vaccines to Taiwan, and has stepped back from a Chinese group set up to engage eastern European countries.
“We’re rethinking our diplomatic presence in the Pacific region,” Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told an online event with the Atlantic Council on July 16. “We’re building more and more ties with countries that have more like-minded governments to ours. I’m very proud that we’re a voice for democracy and liberty, not only in our region, the Eastern partnership, but across the globe as well.”
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 impacting 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 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 met with the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell in Tashkent.
Over the last couple of 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’s opening in Lithuania in the territory of the unrecognized government of Somaliland in a bid to bolster its dwindling number of allies.