EU reiterates support for Lithuania in row with China over Taiwan

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As European lawmakers demanded the EU foster closer ties with Taiwan, a leading Brussels official vowed to push back against China’s “attempts to intimidate” Lithuania and other member states over their relations with the self-ruled island.

Beijing moved to stop Chinese freight trains from travelling to Lithuania in August, after the tiny Baltic nation moved forward with plans to host a “Taiwanese Representative Office” in its capital city Vilnius.

Lithuanian businesses have also reported losses of export licences in some sectors, in what its government has decried as economic bullying on the part of the world’s second largest economy.

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European Commission Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager, speaking on behalf of the bloc’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, expressed “solidarity” and “support” for Vilnius.

“Lithuania and all member states [who] find themselves coerced for taking decisions that China finds offensive need support and our solidarity. The EU will continue to push back at these attempts and adopt appropriate tools, such as the anti-coercion instrument, currently under preparation,” said Vestager, also the EU’s competition commissioner, in an address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France on Tuesday.

A draft of the anti-coercion instrument is expected in December. It would give the EU a mandate to retaliate for perceived economic bullying. Vestager did not expand on what sorts of measures Brussels would take to support Vilnius.

Vestager added that the EU “has to address China’s assertiveness and attempts to intimidate Taiwan’s like-minded partners” and that it wanted to “further engage [with Taipei] in respect of the European Union’s one China policy”.

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Borrell was expected to address the parliament’s debate on Taiwan but left without notice because of a scheduling issue. In a call with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi last month, Borrell defended the bloc’s plans to expand its relationship with Taiwan “without any recognition of statehood”, according to an EU statement.

The parliament was debating its first position paper exclusively on Taiwan, a non-binding report that makes a series of recommendations to the European Commission and member states. It will go to a vote on Wednesday.

It comes at a time of increased interest in cross-Strait relations in Europe, with military tensions in the region making headlines and earning diplomatic rebukes in EU capitals. China has made a number of aircraft incursions into Taiwan’s air defence zone in recent weeks.

“We have seen repeated incursions of Chinese planes across the median line and in Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. These displays of force may have a direct impact on European security and prosperity,” Vestager said.

The stand-off – combined with Lithuania’s spat with Beijing – has helped solidify support for Taiwan among lawmakers.

A Chinese People’s Liberation Army J-16 fighter jet flies in an undisclosed location. Photo: Taiwan Ministry of Defense via AP
A Chinese People’s Liberation Army J-16 fighter jet flies in an undisclosed location. Photo: Taiwan Ministry of Defense via AP

Michael Gahler, a centre-right German MEP who chairs the parliament’s Taiwan friendship group and who was sanctioned by China this year, urged the EU to conclude an investment deal with “the democratic part of China”, meaning Taiwan, since Brussels has already pursued an investment pact with “the dictator part”, referring to the bilateral deal with China which has run aground.

“We are not crossing red lines, to the contrary we want to preserve the status quo across the Taiwan Strait and demand that no unilateral steps are taken, and certainly no violent steps from mainland China,” Gahler said, saying that “in return” the EU should not “unilaterally change the status by recognising Taiwan diplomatically”.

Katalin Cseh, a Hungarian MEP with the liberal Renew Europe group, warned that “Beijing’s increasing aggression [in Taiwan] is very much our business”.

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“China knows this, this is why they cultivate Trojan horses like the Orban government,” said Cseh, referring to the pro-China Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Among the recommendations outlined in the report were for the EU to “urgently begin an impact assessment, public consultation and scoping exercise on a bilateral investment agreement” with Taiwan; to condemn China’s “continued military belligerence against Taiwan”; to advocate for Taiwanese observer status at international organisations including the World Health Organization and Interpol, and to “express solidarity” with Lithuania in its row with Beijing over plans to set up a Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius.

Parliamentarians wrote that the imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong has made the claim of China’s 2005 anti-secession law to “grant Taiwan a high level of autonomy in case of unification completely untrustworthy”.

They urged the EU and member states to ramp up exchanges with Taipei “including at the most senior levels”, in spheres including politics, economics, science and industry.

“The EU must also more strongly condemn China’s continued military belligerence against Taiwan. We must stress the need for freedom of navigation and overflight in the East and South China Sea, as well as the importance of pursuing peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” said Charlie Weimers, the report’s lead author.

Weimers also called for the EU to “change the name of the European Economic and Trade Office in Taiwan to ‘European Union Office in Taiwan’ in order to reflect the broad scope of our ties”.

Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a non-resident fellow at the Taiwan NextGen Foundation think tank in Taipei, said that regardless of whether the parliament’s report brings about “meaningful change in the EU’s future approach toward Taiwan”, it would be significant in its own right.

“The report made space for Taiwan in Brussels’ discourse by putting it on Brussels’ agenda on its own merit, and not in the framework of EU-China relations,” she said.

“The report helps see Taiwan as a democracy under authoritarian threat, a threat that the EU itself is facing inside the bloc, making the fight against disinformation a common interest, and an area where member states have a lot to learn from Taiwan.”

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