Brussels has backed Lithuania in its clash with China over Taiwan, after Beijing reacted angrily to the Baltic country’s support for Taipei.
The backing came from the EU’s High Representative, Josep Borrell, following a meeting of the bloc’s foreign affairs ministers in Brest, who said that there was “clear solidarity” with Lithuania in the row.
“Some things [with China] are going well, some less well,” the foreign policy chief told reporters on Friday. “Notably in the meeting we talked about Chinese activities in Lithuania and the impact of these activities in terms of the EU as a whole. Member states expressed clear solidarity with Lithuania and we discussed how we can actively press on with de-escalation in terms of this crisis.”
Much to the anger of China, Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open a so-called representative office, a de facto embassy, in its capital last November - the first of its kind in Europe and what China calls a “clear breach” of the country’s One-China policy.
But the row has been brewing for some time now, starting initially after Vilnius left the so-called 17+1 group – a format used by China to negotiate directly with the bloc’s eastern countries – in May last year.
Beijing then began, unannounced, restricting Lithuanian goods from entering the country, leading the Baltic state to boost relations with Taiwan, further intensifying the trade war between the two sides.
Lithuania backing down?
Vilnius declared in December that it would not be sending any diplomatic officials to the Winter Olympics in China, but the country’s foreign ministry is now refusing to call it a boycott, however.
Earlier this month, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda also said it was a “mistake” to let Taiwan open a representative office under its own name, rather than using “Chinese Taipei” to avoid threatening Beijing’s claim to Taiwan.
These latest developments could be a sign that Vilnius is retreating from its original position, likely due to the economic might of China, which is also pressuring European companies, like German car parts manufacturer Continental, not to use components made in Lithuania.
A recent poll by the Baltic country’s foreign ministry found that only 13% of the population support the government’s current position on China, in large part due to the impact it is having on Lithuanian businesses.
A test of EU unity
Vilnius may now be trying to soften the blow of its actions, but Borrell’s words on Friday will come as welcome news to it, as it looks to sell its row with Beijing as an EU-wide issue impacting the whole single market, rather than just Lithuania.
The government will be encouraged too by French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent words, saying that the way China is acting in its dispute with Lithuania “continues to worry us”.
Backing from Taiwan itself will also boost Lithuania’s hopes of EU harmony on the issue, after the island nation pledged a $1 billion credit fund aimed at helping the country’s businesses in its confrontation with Beijing.
In a further lift, Taipei says it intends to invest $200 million in Lithuania, with microchip manufacturing – an area the EU is desperately trying to advance – one of the likely sectors set for investment.
The latest dispute with China is a real test of unity for EU member states though and how it plays out over the next few weeks and months could define the bloc’s relationship with Beijing going forward.