By J. Michael Cole
The opening of the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania in the middle of November is being regarded as a coup de main by Taipei in the continuous battle for Taiwan’s international space. The speed by which relations between Taipei and Vilnius developed in 2021 appears to have caught Chinese officials completely by surprise, and the establishment of reciprocal representative offices completely bucks Beijing’s strategy of using coercion and incentives to isolate Taiwan internationally.
This unexpected turn of events adds insult to injury for Beijing, which had counted on its “17+1” Initiative in Central and Eastern Europe to draw in the region economically, and in so doing to ensure compliance with China’s political goals. The recent defiance by small states like the Czech Republic and Lithuania, highlighted by those two countries’ decision to deepen their engagement with Taiwan despite threats of retaliation by Beijing, stems from a variety of factors. These include the Chinese cover-up of the origins of Covid-19, the crackdown in Hong Kong, the realization that China’s economic inducements were largely illusory, and an overall downturn in global perceptions of China under Xi Jinping (習近平).
Chinese belligerence in response to states’ exercising their sovereign right to engage Taiwan within their own understanding of a “One-China Policy” has backfired – not only by further embittering attitudes toward China but also by encouraging democracies to show solidarity, much of this with the support and encouragement of the United States. Beijing’s tone-deaf reaction to the flourishing, albeit unofficial, ties between Taiwan and Lithuania has highlighted the complete inability of Chinese officials – both in Beijing and on the ground in the Baltic republic -to understand the nature of the people they are dealing with: proudly democratic and independent, viscerally aware of the traumas of authoritarian rule, and largely Roman Catholic -attributes that, as Lithuanians will tell us, are part of their cultural DNA.
China’s inability to keep small, potentially captive states in line has deeply troubled Beijing, as this threatens to expose the emptiness of its strategy. With Lithuania in particular, the lack of economic leverage by Beijing has undermined its ability to retaliate. In 2020, China accounted for less than 1 percent of Lithuania’s overall exports, or USD $357.76 million, while China’s exports to Lithuania were approximately USD $1.34 billion. Still, this lack of leverage did not deter Beijing from seeking further ways to punish Vilnius for its insubordination. China has downgraded relations between the two countries to the sub-ambassadorial level of chargé d’affaires, suspended consular services, and delisted Lithuania as a country of origin. All these measures have been accompanied by a drumbeat of threats and invective in Chinese state media, with the ultra-nationalistic Global Times recently comparing punishing Lithuania to “swatting a fly.”
This savaging of Lithuania over its “provocation,” however, is unlikely to compel Vilnius to reverse course and has arguably been self-defeating. Instead, Beijing’s principal policy at this point appears to be the use of diplomatic “carpet bombing” to deter other small states from following in Lithuania’s footsteps. This, in turn, has given renewed impetus to ongoing efforts within the EU to draft and implement anti-coercion mechanisms—measures that, once in place, could mitigate the effects of such retaliatory action by China against other EU member states.
Opportunities and responsibilities for Taiwan
The establishment of a representative office in Lithuania constitutes a victory for Taiwan in its efforts to counter both international isolation and the Chinese narrative of Taiwan’s supposedly inevitable international isolation. By focusing on a part of the world that has not traditionally been an area for Taiwanese presence and engagement, Taipei has also demonstrated the virtues of an asymmetrical approach to combating China on the world stage. This development also exposes the fact that Beijing is willing to break its own rules on “One China,” in that it is now willing to punish states even when they continue to abide by their “One-China Policy” by not establishing official ties with Taiwan. Although the object of Beijing’s ire is ostensibly related to the nomenclature used for Taiwan’s office in Vilnius (which uses the word “Taiwan”), at a deeper level, the source of its anger is the gains that Taiwan has made in Europe, an area where China had hoped to increase its influence.
Lithuania has taken some risks in placing its bets on Taiwan, and besides the retaliation it is currently facing, the move may also have cost it future economic opportunities. Consequently, it will be crucial for Taiwan to demonstrate that Vilnius’ risk-taking was not in vain. Already, a large Taiwanese trade and investment delegation has visited the country, with a total of 240 online and offline trade talks involving more than 150 Lithuanian firms and various Taiwanese ones. Taiwan must build on the complementarity of the two economies to replicate its successes in countries like the Czech Republic, where despite much Chinese propaganda, Taiwan has been a much more substantial investor and job creator.
Lithuania has a hard-working, highly educated and productive workforce in the manufacturing sector, with strengths in areas such as the laser industry—which has also become a target for Chinese retaliation, with China deciding to halt cooperation between its laser industry bodies and Lithuania.
Trade forms the basis of bilateral relations and must be mutually beneficial. Lithuania has made it clear that it expects to reap the benefits of engagement with Taiwan, a country with an economy approximately 11 times larger than its own, as well as a highly advanced tech sector. Lithuania therefore represents a golden opportunity for Taiwan to showcase the advantages of engagement and to demonstrate that small and medium states not only can afford to defy China but can actually benefit materially from doing so. Conversely, failure to build upon and to sustain this momentum could dissuade prospective partners from going down that path. Thus, Taipei must demonstrate a commitment to building prosperous and mutually beneficial ties with its new Baltic ally, and the tangible results must materialize as expeditiously as possible.
Opportunities for expanding engagement between Taiwan and Baltic States
The potential for engagement between Taiwan and the Baltics goes well beyond trade and investment, however. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia all have traditions of resistance to external aggression and, by virtue of their proximity to Russia, have developed their own strategies to counter the security threat posed by their much more powerful – and like China, expansionist neighbor. Taiwan and the Baltic states, therefore, have much to learn from each other, in areas ranging from cyber and hybrid warfare to the implementation of an asymmetrical defense posture. While Russia poses the more immediate threat to the Baltic region underscored by apprehensions across the region that Moscow could launch an invasion of Ukraine as early as next January – it is also clear that China has become a more active player in the region, with all the risks of espionage, cyberattacks, co-optation, and hybrid threats that this new presence entails.
Countries like Lithuania that have already defied Beijing are now bracing for the very real possibility of cyberattacks against their institutions, and this is an area where Taiwan’s expertise in addressing such threats can come in handy. Appropriate intelligence-sharing mechanisms must therefore be established to facilitate communication, threat mitigation, and response; these are areas where, again, Baltic states can make real gains from a deeper relationship with Taiwan, whose capabilities in the cyber sector are larger by orders of magnitude. The fledgling relationship with this part of Europe also creates opportunities for Taiwan’s indigenous defense industry, particularly in the unmanned vehicle sector: for example, Taiwan donated 10 police drones to Lithuania in October to assist the country as it deals with an influx of refugees from Belarus.
For its part, Taiwan has much to learn from the Baltic states in non-traditional military areas, particularly in areas of state resilience and the concept of total defense. For example, as it explores ways by which to increase its deterrence against a Chinese attack, the Taiwanese military could learn important lessons from the Lithuanian Lietuvos Šaulių Sąjunga (“Riflemen’s Union”), the Estonian Defense League, and the National Guard, initiatives that blend traditional military forces with a militia and civilian component. Among other things, Taiwan could learn from those countries’ experiences in providing training to these additional layers of defense, as well as how and where to safely store weapons so that they can be quickly accessed by paramilitary forces in times of national emergency.
No doubt Taiwan could learn a thing or two about forming and training a proper Reserve Force. Taiwan and the Baltics can also identify areas for the joint training of special forces and other units charged with waging asymmetrical war against a much more powerful and better-equipped opponent. Latvia and Lithuania, in particular, have clearly signaled their willingness to engage Taiwan more closely on such matters.
For this to happen, the Taiwanese government will have to be willing to go beyond its traditional areas of engagement on security issues, and civilian authorities will have to contend with a culture of historical resistance within the ministry of national defense to the idea of giving the population a role in national security (especially one that involves arming them). But as with trade, Taipei will need to overcome those difficulties and, as rapidly as possible, demonstrate to its potential partners that it is ready to engage them in a way that is mutually beneficial.
As the experience with Lithuania shows, an unprecedented window of opportunity has been created for Taiwan in the Baltics -one that will not remain open indefinitely. While we cannot expect results overnight, especially on security matters, Taipei cannot afford to drag its feet – and must therefore be proactive in its efforts to turn this potential into a source of real benefits for all the countries involved. It has natural and willing partners in the Baltics; Taipei, too, must demonstrate that it means what it says. If it does well in that area, there is a high likelihood that countries elsewhere will take notice. Failure to seize this moment, however, could have long-term detrimental effects on Taiwan’s appeal, and thereby strengthen China’s ability to deter engagement with Taiwan. The ball, therefore, is very much in Taipei’s court.
The main point: A window of opportunity has opened for Taiwan to deepen its engagement with the Baltic states, a grouping of small nations that also faces an existential threat from a powerful authoritarian neighbor. In areas ranging from trade to non-traditional defense, these states are natural allies for Taiwan, and provide a chance for Taipei to showcase the real benefits of closer ties despite threatened retaliation by Beijing.
Michael Cole is a senior non-resident fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute.