Diplomat’s revelation suggests halting of feud with Beijing over Vilnius permitting opening of controversially named Taiwanese office in its capital
Bilateral trade not fully restored, but it has been ‘more than compensated for’ through other Indo-Pacific countries, says Gabrielius Landsbergis
By Finbarr Bermingham in Berlin
November 29, 2023
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis talks to journalists as he arrives at a meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Brussels on Tuesday. Photo: AP
China has lifted its “economic pressure” on Lithuania, the Baltic country’s foreign minister said, as the two sides who have been at odds diplomatically move closer to what would be an unlikely detente.
Gabrielius Landsbergis said talks were ongoing to end a feud with Beijing that flared when Lithuania in 2021 permitted the opening of a controversially named Taiwanese office in its capital, Vilnius.
Soon after, Lithuanian exporters found they could not access China’s customs system, leading to a near-total drop in shipments to the country.
“I must highlight that, following discussions and various diplomatic processes, some of which are still ongoing at the World Trade Organization, most of the economic pressure measures against Lithuania have been lifted,” Landsbergis told Lithuanian news agency ELTA.
Taiwanese and Lithuanian flags displayed at the Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2022. Photo: Reuters
“What I haven’t made so clear in the past is that Lithuania is no longer under any economic pressure from China,” he said, adding that while trade had not been fully restored it had been “more than compensated for” through trading with other Indo-Pacific countries.
“Businesses are not choosing China as a partner because of previous experiences and understanding that the country uses the economy as a tool.”
Lithuanian shipments to China were up 53 per cent over the first 10 months of the year from a year earlier, to US$110 million, according to Chinese customs statistics. But they stood 71 per cent lower than the first 10 months of 2021, before the trade ground to a halt.
Landsbergis denied that the name of the Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius would change as a result of the thaw in ties. Most similar presences in European capitals go by the name “Taipei”, although the European Union insists that the name “Taiwanese” is consistent with its one-China policy.
“The issue of the Taiwanese representative office is not part of our discussions with Beijing,” said Landsbergis. “It’s a question of how to alleviate the pressure on Lithuania, how to remove that pressure, which, in my view, runs contrary to international norms. I believe that with patience and skill this issue can be resolved.”
“The second tool that has been used against Lithuania is diplomatic pressure. China is demanding that Lithuania rename its diplomatic mission in Beijing in line with its model.
“But we have no such models in place. The talks on harmonising the ‘visions’ have been ongoing for the past year.”
The saga has been one of the most contentious points in EU-China relations for the past two years, resulting in significant reputational damage for Beijing across the bloc.
Fu Cong, China’s ambassador to the EU, has not said whether Beijing would normalise ties with Lithuania. Photo: AFP
Before the end of the year, a retaliatory trade tool inspired by the coercion is scheduled to take effect. The anti-coercion instrument would allow Brussels to impose tariffs, quotas or market bans on powers who bully EU members.
Last week, Fu Cong, China’s ambassador to the EU, made a rare explicit admission that Beijing had officially punished Lithuania for the affair.
“This concerns one of the fundamental principles of Chinese foreign policy, which is the one-China policy,” Fu said. “So if a country actually harms that basic principle, we will take responsive actions. I think that is understood.”
Asked by the Post whether China was open to normalising ties with Lithuania, Fu said he was not “privy to the diplomatic negotiations”. A week out from the EU-China summit, resolution on the issue would offer welcome positive news as far as Brussels is concerned. Officials said they were still seeking clarity on the situation.
In Berlin on Tuesday, however, Landsbergis kept up his tough rhetoric against autocratic governments, without naming China individually.
“We’re definitely been watched, that’s for sure, we’re being watched by non-democratic actors, by those who have been mired in crises of their own for decades or even longer than that,” the Lithuanian diplomat told the Berlin Foreign Policy Forum.
“And now they’re trying to answer the question: how would we [in Europe] answer if they were to start a crisis?”
After his remarks, Landsbergis was seen greeting Taiwan’s top envoy in Berlin, Shieh Jhy-Wey.