Taipei announced on Thursday it had formally opened the office in the Baltic state – its first in Europe in 18 years – in defiance of a pressure campaign from Beijing.
The new diplomatic post will put an end to the use of the euphemism “Taipei” office in Vilnius - a common reference to Taiwan’s other diplomatic missions in Europe and the United States.
China considers Taiwan part of its territory and has threatened to annex it by force if necessary, which President Xi Jinping has described as a “historic mission”.
Beijing has long pressured other countries to cut their ties with Taiwan in order to maintain relations with China as part of the “One-China” policy recognised by the US, the UK and EU. Only 15 countries in the world have diplomatic ties with the self-ruled democratic island.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry said late on Thursday the opening of the office would “charter a new and promising course” for ties between it and Lithuania, highlighting an economic potential in the growing bilateral relations.
“Taiwan will cherish and promote this new friendship based on our shared values,” the ministry sai
China’s Foreign Ministry said the move was a “crude inference” in the country’s internal affairs, describing the decision as an “extremely egregious act.”
“The Lithuanian side is responsible for all consequences arising therefrom,” it said. “We demand the Lithuanian side immediately correct its mistaken decision.”
In August, China withdrew its ambassador to Vilnius after Taiwan announced its office in the city would be called the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania.
China’s aggressive response to Lithuania was understood to be a warning shot to other European countries to discourage them from taking similar action.
Beijing’s irritation has also stemmed from Lithuania’s decision to open an embassy in Taipei at a future date unspecified yet.
Last year’s general election in Lithuania elevated a centre-right alliance to power. One of its central campaign slogans was a “values-based foreign policy”, indicating strong support of democratic states.
Since then, Lithuania has tended to adopt a more hawkish policy towards authoritarian countries, like China, Russia and Belarus.
Lithuania was also disappointed as China lagged behind on its investment promises as part of the “17+1” block with central and eastern Europe aimed at addressing a soaring trade deficit and benefitting from China’s blueprint Belt and Road Initiative projects.
Subsequently, the Baltic country has decided to withdraw from the “17+1” in May, calling on all EU members to pull out.
Beijing has concerns that the Lithuanian policies to carve out a more prominent diplomatic role for Taiwan in Europe would encourage a change in the status quo and unravel the consensus over the “One-China” policy.
“The attempts to create a ‘one China, one Taiwan’ landscape flagrantly violates the one-China principle… undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and grossly interfere in China’s internal affairs,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in a statement late Thursday night.
Despite China’s threats of retaliation, doubts around its ability to coerce Lithuania to change tack are growing.
Analysts say the low rate of Chinese investment and economic engagement with Lithuania was seen as a blessing in Vilnius.
The recent shift in tone in Lithuania also reflects an overall changing sentiment in Europe towards the cross-strait issue. In October, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu toured Europe and made an unprecedented visit to Brussels and held discussions with European lawmakers. The visit triggered China’s wrath and attracted usual Chinese threats of counteractions.