LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE OPENING OF THE TAIWAN REPRESENTATIVE OFFICE IN LITHUANIA
By Jung-Ming Chang
Small states are often underestimated, if not ignored, in world politics. However, this is not always the case such that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. A recent case demonstrates this well. Lithuania just opened the Taiwan Representative Office in Vilnius in July 2021. This is the first-ever outpost using the name of “Taiwan” in Europe and deemed by China as a serious challenge to its self-proclaimed ‘one China’ principle. China soon recalled its ambassador to Lithuania, demanded Lithuania reciprocate the move, and put a hold on the rail freight link in August. However, Lithuania’s move was welcomed by the United States. As U.S. Department of State spokesman Ned Price put it, “we do stand in solidarity with our NATO Ally Lithuania.” The Lithuanian case is perhaps just the beginning. As more small states join this campaign and with the help of big countries, they could probably turn the tide in the current world.
A CHINA-OBSESSED PRINCIPLE
China usually forces other countries to accept its ‘one China’ principle as the foundation for establishing bilateral diplomatic relations. The principle predefined by the Chinese communist government goes like this: there is only one China in the world, Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, and the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is the sole legal government of China. This predetermined principle is a favorable policy for China, but maybe not for other countries in the world. So far, the principle applies to any issue associated with Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and, recently, Hong Kong.
The result of not adhering to the ‘one China’ principle is punishment. After the Dalai Lama’s trip to Ulaanbaatar on November 19, 2016, China blocked the Gants Mod crossing in southeastern Mongolia by levying new border fees. Additionally, bilateral talks on China’s provision of US$4.2 billion loans to Mongolia and economic cooperation were postponed. Consequently, Mongolian Foreign Minister Tsend Munkh-Orgil expressed regret that the Dalai Lama’s visit hurt ties with Beijing, and added that Mongolia will no longer allow the Dalai Lama to visit the country. On January 24, 2017, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Mongolia’s Foreign Minister Tsend Munkh-Orgil over the phone that he hoped Mongolia had taken this lesson to heart and that Mongolia would “scrupulously abide by its promise” not to invite the Dalai Lama again. Afterwards, Chinese economic assistance to Mongolia resumed.
Moreover, China placed sanctions on individuals and entities of the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and the European Union to counteract their sanctions on Chinese officials related to the human rights violcations in Xinjiang. In addition, following the U.S. sanctions in support of Hong Kong protests against the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment, China imposed sanctions on individuals or organizations of the United States in return.
Taiwan, at the core of the “one-China” principle, suffers from this assertive principle the most. The Taiwan issue is the most sensitive one for China. Compared with other pro-secessionist entities, such as Xinjiang and Tibet, not only does Taiwan have strong economic, trade, and technology ties with the rest of the world, Taiwan is also a country having armed forces, backed by the United States. Therefore, Taiwan’s any move towards independence gets on China’s nerve and might encourage other pro-secessionist entities to do so.
Aggravatingly, any country or international organization that wants to develop relations with Taiwan often faces political and/or economic coercions from China. In September 2020, Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil led a delegation comprising 36 high-tech enterprises to visit Taiwan. Not only were members of the delegation under China’s sanctions soon after they left Taiwan, but China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism suggested that Chinese citizens not to travel to the Czech Republic. This was an implicit boycott against the Czech Republic. A similar action happened when Beijing indefinitely postponed the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra’s tour to China and the postponement was believed to be connected with Prague mayor’s support for Tibet and Taiwan.
These incidents show that the “wolf warrior diplomacy,” adopted during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s term of office, not only interferes with foreign countries seeking to build political and/or economic ties with Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, but affects cultural and religious exchanges as well. The ‘one China’ principle creates asymmetric pressure for countries, especially the small ones, in the world as China grows stronger. The principle serves only PRC’s political interests, but not for those of small countries.
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THE LITHUANIAN INCIDENT?
Formal ties between any pair of countries shall be based on mutual benefits, rather than unilaterally preset conditions. For example, the U.S. policy towards China and Taiwan, the ‘one China’ policy, contains documents such as the Three Communiqués, Taiwan Relations Act, and Six Assurances. The U.S. ‘one China’ policy, compared with China’s ‘one China’ principle, is more flexible and provides a better variant for the U.S. national interests when dealing with cross-Strait issues. It is obvious that recent episodes of coercion in the aforementioned cases demonstrate that big countries can stand firm in face of Chinese political/economic pressure, whilst small countries must thrive to not follow China’s demands. As China becomes more powerful and adopts its ‘one China’ principle coercively, collective actions from countries in different sizes to stop China’s aggressive diplomatic actions is necessary.
The Lithuanian case has at least two implications: 1) small states are no less important than major states; 2) the United States could garner support from small states in its competition with China. For the first implication, one would argue that small states are not highly dependent on China in terms of trade and this is why they dare to challenge the ‘one China’ principle. To some extent, this is true. However, no country in the world can really get rid of China’s political/economic pressure since the country has become a ‘world factory’. Therefore, it is biased to say and too early to determine that Lithuania does not have much to lose by defying the ‘one China’ principle. As the incident develops over time, Lithuania is likely to lose new contracts and licenses for exports to China. In this situation, small countries are to be applauded for making greater achievements than big countries by not accepting the ‘one China’ principle.
For the second implication, it makes sense for the United States to unite with not only major states but small states as well in its competition with China. U.S. President Joe Biden has adopted a policy that is quite contrary to his predecessor President Donald Trump. Instead of following the course of competing with China unilaterally, Biden has attempted to garner support from the U.S. traditional allies in Europe. In that vein, Biden embarked on June 9, 2021, his first foreign visit after taking office and the first stop was in Europe. After a meeting with United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Biden also attended a G-7 summit. Subsequently, Biden participated in a NATO summit and an EU summit. Some even suggest to search the potential wrinkles in the Moscow-Beijing friendship after Biden and Putin Summit in Geneva.
Reactions from the European allies were satisfying. The United Kingdom announced that a carrier strike group, led by Elizabeth aircraft carrier, will depart in September to visit Yokosuka, Japan. Additionally, a U.K. littoral response group, comprised of two patrol ships, will be deployed in Japan permanently. France also played her part in demonstrating the will to protect its overseas territory, the French Polynesia, in the Indo-Pacific through the Heifara Exercise in late June this year. In the exercise, a contingent of three Rafale fighter jets along with two A330 tankers and two A400M cargo planes flew from three bases in France to the South Pacific with only one stop in Travis, California. After the exercise, French President Emmanuel Macron urged countries in the South Pacific to establish a coast guard network to crack down on ‘predatory’ fishing in the region.
However, more could be done by the U.S. side to assist small states when they choose not to follow the ‘one China’ principle. The Mongolian case in 2016 and Lithuanian incident in 2021 comprise two cases for comparison. Mongolia failed to carry out non-adherence to the ‘one China’ principle due to the lack of support by major powers, namely the United States. Conversely, Lithuanian persisted in letting Taiwan open the Taiwan Representative Office in Vilnius after receiving support from the United States. And it is encouraging to see that U.S. backing of Lithuania does not only happen once but has been conducted in a continuous fashion. When asked by Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda for consistent U.S. support for the policy vis-à-vis China, U.S. President Joe Biden responded that the United States is closely following Lithuania’s steps and that the United States supports Lithuania on this path during an informal conversation at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) November 1, 2021, in Glasgow. In order to win the competition with China, the United States should give a hand to small countries when needed.
AN INCLUSIVE STRATEGY
The ‘one China’ principle is gradually not applicable to the current international structure. Not only does the principle prevent countries from pursuing their best interests due to China’s economic coercion, the principle also does not contribute to China’s long-term development which depends on a freer economy and society. The United States and like-minded countries in the world should let China understand that a less restrictive ‘one China’ principle will be a better option. Currently, the United States still approaches only the major powers in the West. This has been a hard habit to break in international relations. However, it is simply not enough if the ultimate goal is to compete with China. More allies and partners are needed in the international arena as well. Lastly, maybe China could also consider revising its ‘one China’ principle and allowing countries in the world to recognize China and Taiwan at the same time.
Jung-Ming Chang is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of National Defense and Security Research. His research interests include U.S.-China-Taiwan relations and Taiwan-Oceania
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